Mudddleheadedness and Simplemindedness – Whitehead and Russell

by George R. Lucas, Jr.

Mr. Lucas is research associate at the Peace Institute, Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, Evanston, Illinois.

The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 26-39, Vol. 17, Number 1, Spring, 1988. Process Studies is published quarterly by the Center for Process Studies, 1325 N. College Ave., Claremont, CA 91711. Used by permission. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Bertrand Russell has more process thought in his philosophy than most give him credit. Nevertheless, there is a conflict between Russell’s hard logic and Whiteheads process thought– analytic versus continental; logical and linguistic versus the systematic and metaphysical; conceptual elucidation and clarification versus historical study and phenomenological description.

"Bertie thinks I am muddleheaded; but then I think he is simpleminded" -- A N. Whitehead

The title of this paper is taken from this famous viva voce remark by Whitehead. Purportedly this was the final line of Whitehead’s brief introduction of Russell during the latter’s series of William James Lectures at Harvard in 1940. The paper itself takes the occasion of the publication of a book on each of these two philosophers by Paul O. Kuntz (ANW, BR) as an opportunity for re-examining some of the interesting philosophical and historical comparisons between these two pivotal intellectual figures of our century.


"Simplemindedness" hardly seems an appropriate description for Bertrand Russell, one of the more complex minds of our age. Yet beyond Whitehead’s original harmless and humorous intent, there is a serious and sympathetic sense in which this designation captures precisely the spirit and intent of Russell’s basic realistic and logical approach to philosophical questions in the era of G. E. Moore and the "common sense" approach to empiricism. After the apparent dissolution of normal empirical and relational thought at the hands of F. H. Bradley, and the apparent paradox (as Russell himself complained) that it was now impossible to know anything without first knowing everything, "simplemindedness" must have seemed the only antidote possible for philosophy.

Russell’s "simplemindedness" is evident, not only in his demand for clarity and logical rigor, but in his unwillingness to mire himself in important philosophical issues for which clarity and rigor might not represent attainable goals. The latter attitude is revealed, for example, in Russell’s profound discomfort over the subtle differences between the development of realism in Great Britain and America, illustrated in correspondence with his American counterpart at Harvard University, Ralph Barton Perry.

In many respects, the evolution of realist positions in the two cultures was remarkably similar especially when we compare William James’s rejection of Josiah Royce’s idealism with G. E. Moore’s famous attack on Bradley in 1903. But the differences between British and American versions of the realist doctrine are also profound and ultimately were of even greater significance.1 Russell noticed these differences but simply could not interpret or accept them. He was not, for example, particularly hospitable to the American realists’ attempts to reconceive the very notion of experience upon which empiricism should be founded, preferring instead to join Moore and others in England in a virtually uncritical acceptance of the older "commonsense" notion of experience as human (and usually visual) perception derived from their seventeenth-century cultural predecessors Locke and Hume.2

Instead, Russell in effect joined forces with Josiah Royce in America to condemn James for having abandoned the quest for truth and clarity in favor of expediency. He perceived the realists in America more generally as sliding down the "slippery slope" of metaphysical obfuscation from which all had only so recently emerged. Thus, when Perry and several prominent realist colleagues issued their collective manifesto, The New Realism in 1912, Russell wrote that the Americans had combined a style of logic "that I heartily agree with" with a metaphysic, derived from William James, denying the old mind/matter dualism. He observed: "So far I have not been able to agree with this metaphysic, but I am open to conviction; it is only on logic that I have really decided opinions."3

It is hard to imagine a greater contrast with Whitehead, who later came to regard the presumed exactness of logic as "a fake," and who not only did not refuse the metaphysical task, but delved into it more deeply than any modern thinker since Hegel. Surpassing even the considerable efforts of Bradley, McTaggart, Royce, James, Peirce, Bergson, Alexander, Lotze and a host of other important practitioners of the metaphysical art, Whitehead developed a truly novel and original metaphysical stance that is sufficiently complex so as to border either on the profoundly esoteric or the arcane and obscure. While most intellectual historians agree in ranking Russell among the giants of this century, and even accord him a place of honor in the entire 2500-year history of the Western philosophical tradition, the judgment is still not in on Whitehead’s role and place in that history. Despite the spirited defense of Whitehead’s superior philosophic originality recently offered by Charles Hartshorne,4 the charge of "muddleheadedness" lodged by philosophers of a more Russellian, analytic temperament has proven the more serious threat to Whitehead’s reputation than Whitehead’s own charge of "simplemindedness" has proven to Russell’s.


In many respects, Whitehead and Russell symbolize the deep division in professional temperament, style, and methodological stance that has subsequently come to dominate contemporary philosophy: analytic versus continental; logical and linguistic versus the systematic and metaphysical; conceptual elucidation and clarification versus historical study and phenomenological description. Whichever style or stance one favors, and accordingly, whichever philosopher-icon one chooses to defend, it is natural to stress the radical differences between Russell and Whitehead on that account.

The two philosophers themselves seem to encourage that tendency toward stressing their differences. In Whitehead’s "Autobiographical Remarks," and in Russell’s Portraits from Memory5 each, with Edwardian grace and dignity, comments on the attitude of affectionate respect for the other, on the growth of that respect to friendship and collaboration on the monumental Principia Mathematica,6 and on the subsequent dissolution of the collaboration and cooling of the friendship. Whitehead attributes the later developments to a divergence of "fundamental points of view -- philosophic and sociological." Russell adds an account of the strain in their friendship owing to his pacifist views during the First World War -- and takes principal blame for exacerbating that tension. Each tended graciously to credit the other for formulating most of the seminal ideas in the Principia.

Given all this, it is not to be wondered at that subsequent students and interpreters of each have focused on the differences between the two philosophers. Hartshorne, for example (n. 4), focuses on the admittedly sharp differences in the respective reactions of Russell and Whitehead to five important predecessors: Hume, Leibniz, Bradley, Bergson, and James. Whitehead reacted with moderation, care, and historical sensitivity to each, deriving something of importance from all five in constructing for himself a truly original philosophical position. By contrast, Hartshorne accuses Russell of reacting in an extremist, unhistorical, and largely conventional manner to each, parroting an unreconstructed version of Hume’s logical atomism as his own, and rejecting the likes of Bradley and Bergson root and branch.

This estimate is hardly unbiased and may not be entirely fair to Russell. Nonetheless it is an estimate shared by such otherwise disparate figures as George Santayana, John Passmore, and Errol E. Harris. This assessment does not attempt to do justice to the enduring importance of several of Russell’s own discoveries, such as the theories of descriptions and of logical types, which I shall take up in a subsequent section of this paper. But it is difficult at times to see how the theory of perception encompassed in Russell’s logical atomism adds anything to Hume’s position, even as it is often hard to exonerate Russell from the stigma of simpleminded extremism and inconsistent excess -- as, for example, in his variant intemperate reactions to the metaphysics of William James. The best we can do is acknowledge, with Kuntz, that there is a sense in which this unbridled and rebellious extremism in Russell’s nature stemmed from a secularized Calvinist evangelical fervor in behalf of the quest for Truth, which constituted a venerable tradition in the Russell family (BR, p. 2).

In contrast to Russell, Whitehead’s reaction to Hume and James was complex and highly original. Like James and Russell, Whitehead was committed to a pluralist position, albeit not the "radical" pluralism of either of the other two. He adopts from James (and Bergson) the broad outlines of an event-oriented metaphysics in which the fundamental dynamic and structured entities (his "actual occasions") can, under variant circumstances, be shown to exhibit the properties of both matter and mind, and are themselves not properly classified as either. Somewhat paradoxically, given the pluralist sensibilities of all these thinkers, this view has come to be known (through James) as "neutral monism." From James in particular, Whitehead borrowed the generalized notion of "experience" as pervasive and as constitutive of all entities, characterized chiefly by vague and preconscious feelings of causal connectedness and mutual influence among the neutral entities. This notion is vastly more extensive in scope than, as well as the necessary precondition of, the sort of higher-order and limited "experience" characterized by conscious perception and reflective thought.

But none of these views is accepted without radical revision of the sort that a thoughtful critic like Hume might raise. For example, Whitehead introduced the notion of event epochalism in order to avoid the skeptical implications in the presumed paradox (common to Bergson and James) that an undifferentiated continuity of becoming, since it neither begins nor ends, cannot be conceived as determinate or concrete, nor can it be said to "constitute" a plurality of distinct existents.

Whitehead then proceeds to build upon the metaphysical infrastructure of discrete but internally-related "actual entities" in order to develop a critique of Hume’s attack on induction and causality -- a rejoinder whose importance has been vastly underestimated by non-Whiteheadians. The rejoinder to Hume consists principally in offering a reductive analysis of the sort of perceptual experience upon which Hume’s (and Russell’s) empiricism is based. This kind of perception, common to British empiricists from the seventeenth- through the twentieth-centuries, Whitehead terms "presentational immediacy." It consists of a highly abstract, derivative, and limited second-order experience consequent upon a more vague and rudimentary kind of perception, which Whitehead terms "causal efficacy."7 It is the former mode of pre- or subconscious perception -- exhibited in the behavior of bodily organs and tissues, manifest and directly observable also throughout the sentient but nonhuman world, and bearing a close resemblance to William James’s "stream of consciousness" or "blooming, buzzing confusion" -- upon which our conscious knowledge of the "causal nexus" may be grounded. The knowledge of causality may be grounded in experience only by paying attention to the mode of experience in which causality is the principle constituent; but it is precisely this mode of perception that both Hume and Kant ignore. Instead, empiricists and their critics focus exclusively upon perception in the mode of presentational immediacy, in which vivid impressions (sounds, color patches, and the like) are abstracted from their vague, causal nexus and given selective conscious attention. Clearly, if Whitehead (and James) are correct about experience, it is a trivial rather than a profound result that causality cannot be "observed" in Hume’s sense.

It is not clear that "presentational immediacy" is even a form of perception, strictly speaking, at all. Rather, it is a projection by a percipient subject onto a (fictitious) contemporaneous spatiotemporal manifold of certain highly refined and analyzed features of entities directly (but more vaguely and dimly) encountered in the percipient’s immediate past through the mode of causal efficacy.8 The important distinction between true perception -- what we might now in Rortyan jargon call nonmentalistic "unanalyzed raw feels" -- and this second-order symbolic projection of select percepta characteristic only of higher-order conscious organisms is somewhat blurred by terming both equally "modes of perception." Whitehead means to deny the "supervenient projection" interpretation of presentational immediacy and portray it as an autonomous and legitimate mode of perception in its own right. But the phenomenological description offered makes it clear that presentational immediacy is consequent upon a particular type of bodily amplification and selection of sense data derived from the stream of consciousness comprising the immediate past actual world, further abstracted and focused in the human situation through selective conscious attention to some, but not all, of the features of the immediate external world recorded and amplified by the body.

Moreover, in developing this rejoinder to Hume and in attempting to distinguish between the "present" implied by "presentational immediacy" and the "past" of causal efficacy, Whitehead on occasion makes inconsistent claims. On the one hand he seems to hold that there is a well-defined simultaneous present encompassing many entities -- that is, a solidarity of distinct entities in a "unison of becoming," as distinguished from the causal influence of other entities from the shared past -- such that "perception in the mode of presentational immediacy" would involve the mutual relationship of entities distinct from those constituting a single entity’s past actual world. On the other hand, Whitehead seems to accept (with some reluctance) the physical doctrine of relativity, according to which there could not be a solidarity of entities in a unison of becoming. Such a phrase would lack precise meaning, as each entity would comprise its own time-frame of reference and exist in a forced "solipsism of the present moment," in Santayana’s famous phrase.

Hence, in calling attention to this unique appropriation of and response to Hume, I do not mean to suggest that every facet of Whitehead’s theory is beyond constructive criticism or revision. Rather, I mean to suggest that, alongside Whitehead’s logic of relations, his stress on the importance of relative predicates, and his novel theory of "prehensions" -- a list Charles Hartshorne quite rightly cites as Whitehead’s "revolutionary" contributions to Western thought -- I would add the doctrine of symbolic reference and particularly the notion of perception in the mode of causal efficacy. While Karl Popper is generally given all the credit for "solving" the problem of induction through the deductive notion of "falsification," it is my own judgment that Whitehead’s is the only account of induction and causality that can respond to Hume while preserving a commitment to empiricism, experience, and that stubborn grain of realism that remains deeply and perhaps forever imbedded in the scientific enterprise. In any case, there is a kind of originality here that Russell, to my mind, never quite successfully emulates.

A more amusing account of the differences, written from a perspective more sympathetic to Russell, highlights the sense in which mainstream Anglo-American analytic thought has tended to ignore or downplay Whitehead. The philosopher Randall Collins in 1978 "unearthed" a forgotten manuscript of Dr. John H. Watson, recounting a suspenseful case of Sherlock Holmes in which Bertrand Russell figured as the central character. The case centers around the suspicious death at Cambridge of the brilliant Indian mathematician Ramanujan, and the incipient madness of Russell’s eccentric young protege, Ludwig Wittgenstein. Interwoven in the case are anecdotes, both real and contrived, about the Cambridge Apostles, Whitehead, G. E. Moore, John Maynard Keynes, Aleister Crowley, Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury Circle, and Annie Besant and the Theosophical Society. In attempting to unravel the "mystery" of who is really threatening Russell’s life and attempting to drive Wittgenstein to madness -- and to what purpose -- Watson offers midway the following summary indictment:

If you ask me, Whitehead is our man. He is the silent, self-centered genius of this operation, the Professor Moriarty of this latter age. His motive is jealousy of being surpassed by his former pupil, Russell, and by Russell’s pupil, Wittgenstein; and Ramanujan was struck down because he was the friend and ally of Russell’s political sympathizer, Hardy . . . . Whitehead makes an excellent villain -- vain, inscrutable, brilliant.9

I hesitate to ruin, through sober commentary, what is all intended in fun. But this deliberate caricature (which is rejected by Holmes and subsequently proves, of course, unfounded!) is only one of numerous places in which certain unconscious governing assumptions in the Anglo-American mainstream -- in which this clever and articulate author, Collins, has been educated -- are glaringly evident. Russell is the philosopher for all seasons, a true hero, scrupulously committed to morality and truth throughout. Wittgenstein, while distant, unapproachable, and eccentric, is beyond question the most brilliant philosopher of this century. The portrayal of Whitehead even in fun, by contrast, is uninformed to the point of total ignorance, wholly unsympathetic, and altogether unfaithful to every scrap of genuine evidence and testimony we possess regarding his biography or the experiences of his numerous colleagues and students, including Russell.


Against that background of division, antipathy, and unenviable ignorance on both sides of the current philosophic divide, I count it one of the strongest aspects of Paul Kuntz’s recent studies of Whitehead and Russell that he labors to call attention (especially in the Russell volume) to the surprising and dramatic similarities between both philosophers. 10 Given my stress in the previous section on the importance of Whitehead’s theory of perception in the mode of causal efficacy, it is revealing to notice that Russell apparently coined both the term and concept, leaving it to Whitehead to make use of it (BR, p.51). By 1944, however, Russell was enthusiastically acknowledging that "dynamic causal efficacy" also solves the long-standing problem of induction: in his famous Five Postulates of Nondemonstrative Inference, the so-called "structural postulate" makes reference to causal efficacy in asserting and that causal connections can be justifiably inferred from identity of structure within a series of events.11 All of this sounds very close to Whitehead’s position. Hence, if lam right in my estimation of Whitehead’s theory of symbolic reference, some credit ought to be paid to Russell for participating in its formulation, and for coming to a similar recognition of the issue on his own in due time.

On the other hand, Russell credits Whitehead with having "awakened" him from his "dogmatic slumbers" by devising the mathematical technique, called "extensive abstraction," for deriving such presumably fundamental notions as point-instants and material particles from sets of events. Russell claimed that this technique provided the insights which led to his own theory of descriptions and the application of Occam’s razor.12 It is ironic that both philosophers should have been so deeply indebted to each other for concepts that proved central to their own philosophical methods, especially when one considers the often different uses to which those concepts were put: consider, for example, what might ensue if only the theory of descriptions and Occam’s razor were applied to Whitehead’s notion of microscopically constituent "actual entities"!

If, as I suggested in the last section, the obvious and oft-noted differences between Russell and Whitehead symbolize the current analytic-speculative split, then the kinds of similarities and (perhaps even more importantly) the areas of mutual influence, indebtedness, and philosophic enrichment to which Professor Kuntz rightly points can suggest to contemporary philosophers a neutral "dialogical territory" beyond the present, hostile philosophic "demilitarized zone," which is no longer itself viable, interesting, or worthy of the vocation of philosophy.

While numerous specific instances of such similarity of temperament, method and conclusion are cited, Kuntz’s major effort to compare Russell and Whitehead proceeds by classifying both as proponents of "order." This move is, unfortunately, quite problematic. One of the more famous of the innumerable quotable aphorisms from the pen of Russell would seem to discount such a move from the outset. He writes:

The most fundamental of my intellectual beliefs is that this [belief in unity and order] is rubbish. I think the universe is all spots and jumps, without unity, without continuity, without coherence or orderliness or any of the other properties that governesses love. 13

Order is certainly a pervasive and important issue in the classical tradition of metaphysics, and Kuntz might seem to be on firmer ground in suggesting the centrality of this issue in Whitehead’s thought (e.g., ANW, pp.2, 92). The intricate and highly structured categorial scheme of Process and Reality suggests such a concern, which Kuntz rightly links to Aristotle, despite Whitehead’s occasional disclaimers of the Aristotelian tradition (ANW 106). It is not obviously true that Whitehead’s categorical scheme is dialectical, or exhibits explicitly the "dialectical struggle of opposites" (ANW 92). It turns out, however, as Kuntz reluctantly observes, that the notion of "order" that might be derived from a study of Whitehead’s metaphysics is equivocal (ANW 95), and surprisingly, Whitehead on occasion also gave evidence of his distrust of the notion of "order" as the preeminent philosophic issue.

In this regard I recall an anecdote (but not the source or reliability thereof!) concerning Whitehead’ s friend and colleague in the Harvard Law School, Associate Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter. President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed Frankfurter to the U.S. Supreme Court on January 5, 1939. Shortly thereafter, Frankfurter paid a call on the Whiteheads to bid them farewell. "I’m off to Washington," he announced. "Oh!" replied Whitehead. "What takes you there?" Somewhat surprised that he had apparently not heard the news, Frankfurter reported that he had just been appointed to the Supreme Court. "That’s wonderful" beamed Whitehead. Then, straightening a bit in his chair he said importantly, "We need Order!" While turning to leave, however, Frankfurter overheard Whitehead remark softly to himself, "but not too much order!"

Kuntz’s account of both Whitehead and Russell suffers from "too much order." The elaborate categories and hierarchies of order that Kuntz propounds are his own, rather than either of theirs, and both philosophers fit into Kuntz’s esoteric metaphysical scheme only uncomfortably, at best.14 Far more valuable, in my opinion, are the specific doctrinal, historical, and biographical comparisons that can be drawn between both thinkers, to which Kuntz along the way in the Russell volume contributes a number of valuable additions. Let me add some of my own reflections.

Whitehead customarily is regarded, for example, as an anomaly in the tradition of British philosophy. Apart from his early mathematical and logical interests, he is more likely to be dismissed along with Bradley, Bosanquet, and Hegel than honored with Russell, Mill, and Hume. But Russell is no less an anomaly in that tradition. His own logical and mathematical interests are no more evident, nor are they any more sophisticated, than Whitehead’s, and his passionate interest in cultural and political affairs is more to be ranked with Sartre, Camus, or perhaps Herbert Marcuse than with the normative tone of academic British philosophy symbolized by the likes of Austin, Prichard, and Moore. In addition, Russell’s thorough and bitter repudiation of the later Wittgenstein and the "linguistic turn" in Anglo-American philosophy is even more strident than his denunciation of American pragmatism, and (as he himself wryly observed) he became as a result every bit as isolated from the subsequent Anglo-American mainstream as was Whitehead or the most speculative "Continentalist" or committed philosophical pluralist today (cf. BR, pp. 71-74).

It is less often noted that, along with common sense empiricism, the British philosophical tradition historically seems to include a strong commitment to a kind of atomism and philosophical reductionism, in the sense of endeavoring to explain the inferred in terms of the experienced, and the compound or complex in terms of component or constituent simples. This is how Russell himself characterizes the essentials of "analysis" (BR, pp. 56-62). Hume is taken as the paradigm case of these tendencies. But if so, we would have to reckon Whitehead and Russell both as Hume’s chief conscious exemplars in this methodological stance -- far more so than Ayer, Austin, or "either" Wittgenstein. Consider first how deeply both 20th-century thinkers were explicitly indebted to Hume in particular, as well as to other classical British proponents of this approach (e.g., Locke). Russell’s indebtedness is often acknowledged, but Whitehead’s is more frequently overlooked. Hume’s methodological commitment to the primacy of sensory experience led him to what we have come to term a "psychological atomism"; Russell’s development of a logical empiricism led to a "logical atomism" (the only characterization of his overall views he was willing to accept; BR, p. 58). Whitehead’s approach, by comparison, led to a metaphysical atomism justified explicitly by the logical and perceptual foundations common to himself and the early modern empiricists.

Finally, it is intriguing to note that, biographically speaking, both philosophers exhibit a profound personal paradox that, to my mind, is not emulated in the other, considerably lesser figures of 20th-century British thought. The paradox can be characterized as follows. While Russell promoted a logical and metaphysical view that seemed to stress disconnectedness, nonconstitutive external relations, and the absence of anything resembling inherent order, structure, or community, it is hard to find a more passionately engaged "community figure" in the contemporary philosophic scene. While his philosophical views would seem to underwrite a notion of privacy and seclusion, there is no more public figure to be found in contemporary English-language philosophy. His well-known and admirable devotion to the education, nurture, preservation, happiness, and well-being of others seems to have little grounding in his formal views.

Whitehead, the proponent of a metaphysics of solidarity, community, and interconnectedness, might have been expected to stress and himself pursue deep personal involvement in the life of friends and acquaintances and active political commitment to the public good. While he was active in local parliamentary politics before coming to America, and while he did indeed stress the value of open public education in numerous of his public lectures and writings in this country, nevertheless Whitehead was, by every account, an intensely private and solitary individual. Although he had many loyal students and devoted admirers, he had few deeply personal relationships or anything resembling close friends. I can think of only one parallel to this extraordinary paradox: that of Royce and James. James, the philosopher of individuality and private conscious experience was a gregarious and community-oriented personal figure; Royce, the philosopher of community and loyalty was, somewhat like Whitehead, a quiet loner, on one occasion reportedly offering a lecture course with an enrollment of one student, whom he never so much as addressed or personally acknowledged. 15


Personal and historical details are intriguing, but it is on philosophic substance that the Russell-Whitehead comparison should rest. The remarkable similarity can best be traced by presupposing a background of the Whiteheadian metaphysics of interconnected events and the earlier Jamesian notion of "neutral monism," and tracking Russell’s journey from views ostensibly critical and quite unlike these, to a "final view" after World War II that was remarkably similar to Whitehead’s in many relevant aspects.

Russell is perhaps best known for his theory of descriptions, for his hierarchy of logical types, and for his attempts to correlate empiricism and sense experience with what Sir Arthur Eddington came to call the "two worlds" doctrine of physics and common sense. All of these discoveries reflect Russell’s commitment to logical clarity and certainty; all would be taken as indicative of the sharp distinction between his logical-analytic method and the speculative, descriptive, and often imaginative metaphysical temperament of philosophers like James and Whitehead. However, not only did Russell’s own views evolve more toward a metaphysical position compatible in the main with that broadly shared by the other two philosophers, but one may also see in the early, presumably anti-metaphysical views some of the seeds of Russell’s later pluralistic event monism.

This is perhaps least true of Russell’s distinction of hierarchies of logical types of discourse, which was one of his earlier and most important contributions to logical analysis. It is quite difficult to describe how someone else comes by an important intuition, but in the case of this discovery, I have always had a hunch that Russell simply saw something about propositions and classes of these that reminded him of the sorts of levels or hierarchies mathematicians take for granted in geometry or function theory. In Euclidean geometry, for example, the complete mapping or mathematical "description" of an n-dimensional surface requires a volume of dimension n + 1 or greater. The additional dimension can, somewhat simplistically, be thought to provide the vantage point of perspective from which the surface may be defined without loss of detail. The hypothetical vantage point is not itself a member of the set of points defining the surface, and thus it is not itself constrained by or included in the mathematical description of that surface.

This much is obvious to any geometer, and it simply seems to me that Russell had the genius to recognize that, in like manner, propositions about other propositions had to be understood as of a logical order at least one "step" beyond that of the propositions they described. For example, a proposition asserting a strong predicative claim about the general truth-value of the propositions Cretans normally utter cannot itself be of the same status or order as they (even in the case when this "meta-proposition" is itself uttered by a Cretan). It is at least one logical order "beyond" the class of entities it describes, and is thus not itself necessarily described by the set of properties it ascribes to the class of propositions it is characterizing.

On the basis of this insight, one is able to solve (or better, dissolve) the famous paradox of Epimenides the Cretan (who claimed that all Cretans are liars), or at least identify and clarify the nature of the paradox presently silk-screened on numerous APA fund-drive T-shirts, or, most importantly, circumvent Russell’s own paradox of the class of all classes that are not members of themselves, a notion that was otherwise crucial to the attempt to demonstrate the foundations in logic of the arithmetic concept of number.

This seminal intuition or discovery presupposed Russell’s tacit background familiarity with mathematics, as did numerous of his other innovations. It was just as often true, however, that this tacit background misled or bamboozled, instead of bringing greater clarity. Consider the famous problem of private versus public verification of normative descriptions in sense-data theory, of which Russell was for a time a leading proponent. The problem was this: observers of a penny lying atop a desk in a classroom see a variety of visual percepta -- oblong copper-colored ellipsoid solids of one sort or another -- somewhat at variance with the "normative description" of the "penny-an-sich," which (we claim to know on the basis of experience) is "in fact" a thin copper disk, or better, a right-cylinder of certain mass and spatial dimensions. What each observer "perceives" are unique sets of sense-data, sensibilia, or percepta. Quite apart from the ontological status of these, how do we make the inferential leap from those actual, but diverse, private experiences to the normative or public veridical judgment, "That is a penny on top of the desk" (where "penny" now stands exclusively for the normative description just given, as opposed to the particular ensemble of sense data we happen to perceive from a particular frame of reference)?

Russell held that the normative public description was a construct obtained by collating and coordinating (in principle at least) all of the possible private sensations. The procedure is roughly as follows.16

To each observer there corresponds a 3-or 4-dimensional perspective or "private space," in which the sense data literally serve as mathematical points in mapping out the existence and extent of objects that a particular observer seems to perceive. For several observers, there will correspond several such "private spaces," and if all are observing a single object, that object will be uniquely mapped into each observer’s perceptual space. However, upon comparing observations, it will become evident to the respective observers that some of the "points" in their space correspond (to a greater or lesser degree) to points in their neighbors’ mappings as well. If all such collaborative or overlapping data are then mapped by consensus into a separate topological entity, which Russell designates "public space," the locus of all such common points can be taken as the normative description of the object as it is in itself

This same procedure could in principle be repeated by a single observer, making many separate and independent observations from different perspectives, and then mapping them onto one another to obtain the "normative" description. In practice, of course, no sane observer would bother to go through such a procedure in every case. Russell claimed that we instead make use of a number of linguistic shortcuts that normally suffice to perform the same task more efficiently. However, this formal method of "construction" could serve both as a foundational account and a court of appeal for disputes arising over perceptual veridicality.

In a short and unremarkable biography of Russell, A. J. Ayer went to some length to describe this procedure of Russell’s, and opined that he found it "rather incomprehensible."17 We need not, however, be misled, as Ayer apparently was, by this strong dependence upon a mathematical metaphor. Actually, what Russell proposed, in a sense, was a straightforward application of a standard procedure in topology, termed "isomorphic projection," most commonly utilized by cartographers precisely to compile onto a single surface the information contained in a variety of observer’s perspectives, thereby actually producing a (normative) map! Russell’s appeal to this common practice, however, begs the important question of how, in his case, the necessary "correspondence" among different points in the different observers’ perceptual spaces is to be ascertained. And this problem regarding the "public" comparison and verification of diverse "private" sensations is precisely what is at issue in the first place!

I have belabored these somewhat detailed descriptions, because together they illustrate the manner in which Russell’s commitment to logico-mathematical method sometimes yielded striking insights, and yet other times came to nought. Whitehead turns out to be right: the presumed "exactness" of logic is a fake, and Russell was no more or less prone to error or excess through employing it than were other philosophers (like Whitehead) who eschewed it -- a point Russell seems later to concede in his account of his subsequent "Retreat from Pythagoras" (BR, p. 54).

In particular, although the second specific example of logical construction turns out to fail, it nonetheless indicates the more general approach to realism that Russell adopted, captured chiefly in the early period in his theory of descriptions. It is important to notice the realistic-pluralistic metaphysical underpinnings of Russell’s "logical constructivism" which seems on the face of it (and was certainly intended by Russell at this time) as decidedly anti-metaphysical. We can understand Russell’s later cautious advocacy of an explicitly metaphysical position as in part resulting from a consistent and continued commitment to, and application of, this method of logical construction, together with a dispassionate exploration of its full implications, rather than writing off this later phase as entirely distinct and grossly inconsistent with the earlier phases of Russell’s career.

In outline, Russell’s famous axiom of logical constructivism – "whenever possible logical constructions are to be substituted for inferred entities" 18 -- can be understood as a generalization of the principle entailed in the earlier theory of descriptions. For the logical constructions are complex propositional functions that represent the descriptive characteristics of inferred entities such as electrons, billiard

balls, and pennies (as mentioned) or also the "golden mountain" of Melnong, the present King of France, or the term "God" described as "that than which nothing more perfect can be conceived." The difference is that, in the first three cases, the propositional functions (propositional phrases, descriptions) will have definite arguments of which they are a function: i.e., actual perceptual data sensed, or capable of being sensed. In the latter three cases, by contrast, the functions will be indefinite or indeterminate: that is, the function, propositional phrase, or description has no definite or determinate argument.

To elaborate: consider the formal sentence "x is Ø," where Ø stands for an ensemble of sense data associated with the alleged substantial entity, x. Let x = "billiard ball," and we can associate a definite Øb’ a set of properties in a descriptive sentence corresponding to sense data in an ensemble actually characterizing a portion of our perceptual space, consisting of things like sphericity, hardness, color, elasticity and the like. The sense of the phrase "x is Ø" in this case depends upon the determinate reference to Øb.

In a second case, let x = "electron," whence Øe , more problematically depends upon another ensemble of sense data in perceptual space, Øe ,comprising readings on a number of laboratory instruments. This second ensemble of instrument readings, Øe, then constitutes the basis of inference to Øe, the description of the electron (or any other such "object" of physical science). This was Russell’s solution to the correlation of the inferred entities of physics and the actual sense data field of experimental laboratory scientists. The sense of "x is Øe" here depends on an intervening reference to the sense data ensemble Øe

Then finally, let x = "God" in the ontological argument, and Øe = "that than which nothing more perfect can be conceived." Øg is suddenly now not an ensemble of sense data, nor is it inferred from another ensemble Øg referring to some primary locus of an observer’s perceptual space. The reference is formally indeterminate: there is no locus of sense properties in perceptual space, nor can some such ensemble be inferred from any actually existing ensemble. In Russell’s analysis, while we can concoct a descriptive phrase in regard to some entity x, in this particular case there is no reference (either direct or inferred) for Øg , so that there are no instances of x. The same holds true for x = "unicorn," or "the present King of France." In Russell’s earlier elaboration of Frege, such phrases appear to have a determinate sense, but, while they therefore seem to denote some object or state of affairs, they have no determinate reference, and so they do not in fact denote anything at all.

In my parlance, the golden mountain, God, and the present King of France are not denoting phrases or descriptions of actual logical constructions. They at best point to hypothetical constructions, and existence is not a necessary property of hypothetical constructs. Hence, while we seem to talk about the latter three entities in sentences of the same grammatical form as those used to talk about electrons, billiard balls, and pennies, that grammatical similarity is seriously misleading and the source of logical conundrums. The grammatical similarities mask the profound difference that there are no instances of such hypothetical entities, and hence a corresponding absence of any sensibilia out of which logical constructions or descriptions are formed. In the absence of such data, the phrases do not denote nonexistent or transcendent objects or entities; rather, they simply do not denote at all, and the presumed metaphysical puzzle is, as much as anything, merely a function of awkward grammar.19

In a stroke, then, Russell is able to dispense with Meinong’s ontological conundrum and the ontological argument, while providing as adequate an account as anyone has ever been able to offer of how normal human perception and sense data relate to the "objects" of physics. The latter development, a philosophical stage in Russell’s career consequent upon the earlier logical investigations of which the theory of descriptions was a crowning achievement, turns out to have some surprising metaphysical implications. With this method, we have not simply done away with linguistic clutter, we have made the positive assertion that the ultimate "simple" or constituents of things experienced are neither the objects of common sense nor the "scientific" objects of physical theory (electrons, quarks, and the like). Moreover, unlike his colleagues C. D. Broad and G. E. Moore, Russell did not long hold fast to the extensive and absurd violation of Occam’s razor entailed in maintaining some sort of mysterious ontological status for sense data or percepta apart from their originating objects (which are now "constructions").

Instead, Russell came to the conclusion that the ultimate constituents of our universe are "particulars," of which he gave an account that, even midway through his long career, was already remarkably reminiscent of Hume and Whitehead:

Particulars are to be conceived, not on the analogy of bricks in a building, but rather on the analogy of notes in a symphony. The ultimate constituents of a symphony (apart from relations) are the notes, each of which lasts only for a very short time. We may collect together all the notes played by one instrument: these may be regarded as the analogues of the successive particulars which common sense would regard as successive states of one "thing." But the "thing" ought to be regarded as no more "real" or "substantial" than, for example, the role of the trombone."

Whitehead and numbers of his followers likewise frequently adopt the complex and intriguing metaphor of the composition of symphonies or musical works out of the constituent "vibratory" and non-substantial notes in order to account for the more general composition of enduring compound individuals and objects out of "actual occasions." But Russell added more comparisons. In "The Philosophy of Logical Atomism," he appeared to embrace what he had earlier stoutly rejected; the "neutral monism" of William James. 21 In his James Lectures at Harvard in 1940, he abandoned the term "particulars" for "universals" or "qualities" that, based on the examples he cites, functioned somewhat like Whiteheadian "eternal objects": that is, ordinary macroscopic objects or experiences are to be conceived as a particular togetherness of these qualia at a given locus in spacetime.22

My interpretation of Russell’s meaning here is neither forced nor farfetched when we consider his own account of the matter, which he likewise considered a sustained development of his attempt to offer a metaphysical description of things consonant with the latest and best findings of physics, psychology, physiology, and mathematical logic. In his 1959 essay entitled "My Present View of the World," he argued that the fundamental entities are discrete but overlapping "events," that the fundamental entities of mathematical physics are "constructions composed of events," and that entities like conscious minds and "selves" are best understood as collections of events "connected with each other by memory-chains backward and forwards."23

While the general position seems more reminiscent of the "organic mechanism" of Science and the Modern World, Russell’s discussion of minds and the entities of physics bears an interesting resemblance to the more technical Whiteheadian discussion of personally ordered societies and corpuscular societies of actual occasions in Process and Reality. This is not, however, to force home some sort of fallacious one-to-one comparison or argument for complete correspondence or agreement of metaphysical views. Rather, the point to be noticed is simply that such expressions adumbrate a metaphysical view that is neither inconsistent nor, in broad outline at least, incompatible with Whitehead’s own. Moreover, and contrary to the prevailing portrait, the position slowly and meticulously developed by Russell cannot be dismissed merely as the inconsistent or ad hoc view of an elderly philosophic statesman in his mental decline. The sources of this "final metaphysical perspective" are instead, as I have demonstrated, to be found in Russell’s writings extending backward from 1959 to the early logical and analytic works of 1918 and before. The considerations of realism and the surprising developments in the physical sciences in the early twentieth-century form the backdrop for these speculations, while the resources for them lie in part in the collaboration of Russell with Whitehead, notwithstanding their later personal differences and parting of ways.


Russell’s "event metaphysics" is slow to develop, but it is present and in a state of constant updating and revision throughout his long, controversial, and ultimately distinguished career. While I normally prefer caution in offering such sweeping assessments, in this case I find no substantial reason to prescind from Kuntz’s conclusion that Russell could be classified as a "process philosopher." Committed opponents of systematic metaphysical inquiry, devotees of analysis, and disciples of Russell may nonetheless find this judgment unfair, inaccurate, biased, and tendentious. On the basis of the evidence cited, I do not think such objections will prove warranted. I am attempting here to offer an historical analysis, and not presuming to grind some sort of a priori ideological ax. As a longtime admirer of Russell, and as an occasional student and (in due turn) teacher of his views, I have long believed that the similarities between Whitehead and Russell on metaphysical issues were much closer than we imagined, and I am grateful to Kuntz for laboring to point out some of these. Those who stubbornly prescind from these conclusions notwithstanding can, of course, take refuge in Willard Quine’s judgment that historians of philosophy, lacking any ideas of their own, must content themselves with classifying and interpreting the original ideas of others.

One parting observation regarding Whitehead and Russell. Despite the often considerable differences in their interests, views, and philosophic temperaments, and despite the rather different course of careers and subsequent influence on the profession of philosophy generally, there remains the common commitment of both to plumbing the depths of the nature of things, while eschewing nonsense, pretense, fad, and fraud in favor of (as Russell himself might have put the matter) that modest but frequently neglected goal of truth. In both cases, that honest and unwavering commitment is carried out with a sense of modesty, a recognition of their own inherent limitations, and an attitude of gracious appreciation, both for each other and for a host of other opponents and rivals in their field. It is that commitment and that style, perhaps more than anything else, that is sadly lacking in the present era.



ANW -- Alfred North Whitehead, by Paul G. Kuntz (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1984).

BR -- Bertrand Russell, by Paul G. Kuntz (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1986).



1Cf. George R. Lucas. Jr.. The Genesis of Modern Process Thought (London and Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1983) 136-44.

2For a complete account of this, see John E. Smith. "The Reconception of Experience in Peirce, James, and Dewey." The Monist. 68. no. 4 (October, 1985) 538-47

3Letter to Ralph Barton Perry, August 30, 1912, in the Harvard Pusey Library archives.

4Insights and Oversights of Great Philosophers (Albany. NY: State University of New York Press, 1983) ch. 22; esp. 260-61.

5Cf. Whitehead’s "Autobiographical Notes." in The Philosophy of A. N. Whitehead. ed. P. A. Schilip (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press. 1941) 3-14. Russell’s remark about the pacifist dispute occurs at p. 100 of his account of Whitehead in Portraits from Memory (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1951).

6 For a detailed account, see Victor Lowe. Alfred North Whitehead: the Man and his Work (Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press. 1985).

7 Cf. Process and Reality, Part II. ch. 8: also ch. 4, secs. IV-VII: see also Symbolism: Its Meaning and Effect (1927).

8 For a thorough account of presentational immediacy as projection, complete with schematic diagrams, consult Donald W. Sherburne. A Key to Whitehead’s Process and Reality (Chicago: University of Chicago Press) ch, 5. esp. Figure 5, 115.

9 Randall Collins. The Case of the Philosophers’ Ring (New York: Crown Publishers, 1978) 97-98.

10 I have endeavored to call attention to some of these similarities as well, more ostensively than through detailed analysis and exposition. See, for example, The Genesis of Modern Process Thought. 6, 16. 140.

11 Cf. Bertrand Russell, Basic Writings (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1961). p. 154; Human Knowledge: Its Scope and Limits (New York: Simon and Schuster, 19481 482: and Kuntz. BR 51ff.

12 Cf. Bertrand Russell. My Philosophical Development (London: George Allen & Unwin. 1959) 103; The Principles of Mathematics. 2nd ed. (London: G. Allen & Unwin, 1937). xi; Kuntz, BR 62. 38.

13Scientific Outlook (New York: W. W. Norton. 1962), p. 95

14 In ANW. for example, the categories of order which Kuntz uses to organize his material are nested and hierarchical, proceeding from logic and mathematics, through physical nature, biology and psychology, human culture, metaphysics and cosmology, and terminating in theology (cf. 11, 92-95. and passim). One is reminded more of the progress of Hegel’s Encyclopedia than of Whitehead’s own system, which does not appear to recognize any essential ontological significance between these levels or orders of being. All alike comprise societies, nexus and compound individuals, any of which is constituted of the only true res verae. "actual occasions." Hence, there is no greater importance to be attached to a society, the State, or God, than to a human or non-human biological individual.

15I am indebted to John E. Smith for this anecdote concerning Royce.

16 This account is based on Russell’s article, "Physics and Perceptual Space." published as ch. XIII in An Outline of Philosophy (London: G. Allen & Unwin, 1927).

17A. J. Ayer, Russell (London: Fontana-Collins, l972).

18 Mysticism and Logic. 2nd ed. (London: G. Allen & Unwin, 1917), 155.

19 Logical Atomism" in Contemporary British Philosophy, ed. J. H. Muirhead (New York: Macmillan, 1924) 365.

18Mysticism and Logic, 2nd ed. (London: G. Allen & Unwin, 1917), 155.

19 "Logical Atomism" in Contemporary British Philosophy, ed. J.H. Muirhead (New York: Macmillan, 1924) 365.

20. Mysticism and Logic 124-25.

21Logic and Knowledge: Essays 1901-1950 (London: G. Allen & Unwin, 1956) 277-79.

22An Inquiry into Meaning and Truth (London: G. Allen & Unwin. 1940) 117-22.

23 My Philosophical Development 16-27.