Three letters to Bertrand Russell


For this reading, we will be looking at three separate letters from Whitehead to Bertrand Russell, courtesy of the Bertrand Russell Archives at McMaster University. The records of these letters on the Bertrand Russell Archives Catalogue Entry and Research System (BRACERS) can be found here:

See below for downloads:

81679 handwritten letter
81679 transcription

81680 handwritten letter
81680 transcription

81682 handwritten letter
81682 transcription

Letter 81679 is Whitehead’s criticism of Russell’s The Problems of Philosophy (1912), which is freely available for download in multiple file formats–including PDF–on, here. Letter 81679 should be read with this book at hand.

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Background and additional reading on “Three letters to Bertrand Russell”

1910 and 1911 were years of transition for Whitehead. He had resigned his Senior Lectureship in Mathematics in late April of 1910, and moved from Cambridge to London without first lining up a new job. He was unemployed for the 1910-1911 academic year. He used the time to write An Introduction to Mathematics and continue finalizing the proofs for latter two volumes of the Principia Mathematica with his former student and long-time collaborator, Bertrand Russell. He would accept a position to be Lecturer in Applied Mathematics and Mechanics at the University of London in July 1911.

Russell, meanwhile, had written a manuscript for what would become The Problems of Philosophy. In a letter dated 26 August 1911, Whitehead sent Russell 14 pages of criticism on it. The letter is noteworthy for a couple of reasons. First, Whitehead rarely talked philosophy in letters. Second, this is the earliest letter we know of in which Whitehead discusses philosophical topics in a sustained way. In fact, at the time he was not writing philosophy professionally at all. He would not join the Aristotelian Society until 1915, and The Organisation of Thought would not be published until 1917.

Whitehead’s biographer, Victor Lowe, wrote an article for the Russell journal in 1974 discussing Whitehead’s criticisms of the Problems; that article is freely available here.

Whitehead’s letter of 3 September 1911, written a week later, has him describing a sudden epiphany to Russell about a new way to understand time, which the letter of 20 September 1911 expands upon somewhat.

Taken together, these letters represent Whitehead’s earliest known philosophical thinking, and hint at the directions in which his mature philosophy would go.