Whitehead and Russell: Origins of Middleheadedness, Simplemindedness

by Paul G. Kuntz

Paul C. Kuntz is professor of philosophy at Emory University.

The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 40-44, 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.


The deepest tragedy of our age is the division between ideologies represented by Whitehead’s national loyalty in World War I versus Russell’s pacifism.

If my studies of Whitehead and Russell are, as Lucas says, "intellectual biographies," such an approach has very recently been given its greatest boost in Russell: The Journal of the Bertrand Russell Archives with the publication of Whitehead’s "To the Master and Fellows of Trinity College, Cambridge"1 preceded by an analysis by Paul Delany of "Russell’s Dismissal from Trinity: A Study in High Table Politics."2 Does the document shed light on Whitehead’s "muddleheadedness" and Russell’s "simplemindedness?" It does indeed: Whitehead is very much the Anglican who has a duty to "the State" or "the nation" which in time of danger such as war leads him to condemn Russell’s "heedlessness" in protesting injustice to conscientious objectors. What is this circumspection Whitehead is urging on Russell but "heed." "Heed" is cognate with "hood." Russell could scornfully reply: put a "hood" over your head, put a "hood" over the slaughter on the western front, put a "hood" over your protest against the Moloch of the modern state that demands that children be sacrificed. Is Whitehead’s muddle the urging on Russell of dishonesty? Well, not wholly so because, to protest, Whitehead must grant, is a defensible position because a conservative lawyer, Lord Parmoor, has argued that in the case of Sir Thomas More "duty to God . . . came first," and his fate was uncivilized. Furthermore, the "great statesman-Archbishop" Dr. Davidson has condemned handing C.O.’s over to the military. Therefore Whitehead must agree with Russell’s argument. The point of Whitehead is that Russell should have kept his "individual opinion," which he was free to hold, without "heedless . . . propagation" of it.3 This defense of the State is not absolute, for the danger will pass and then new occasions will teach new duties. Then "the duty to religion, to learning, and to research" becomes once again paramount. The responsibility then of the Master and the Fellows will be to correct an injustice. Whitehead states the wrong: "Mr. Russell, a scholar known in every major university of the world, impelled by motives which religion dare not disown, has been driven out of academic life and deprived of academic encouragement . . . ." Whitehead "leave[s] the question here," without drawing the conclusion explicitly: restore the lectureship to rectify the wrong. But this can be done only after the war.

"Mr. Russell has stood his trial, and the facts are noted above. We shall then stand our trial, not before the Lord Mayor of London, but before more searching tribunals, our consciences, the nobler judgment of the world, and, as some hold, in that unknown future to which we must pass. When Paul (Acts 24:25) reasoned of righteousness, of self-control, and of judgment to come, Felix trembled."4

I believe this is Whitehead’s most profound use of analogy from the Bible. Why does Whitehead refer to Chapter 24 of The Acts of the Apostles? I think because the lawyer’s accusation against Paul: "we have found this man a pest, and a promoter of sedition." Could there be a more apt scripture text applied to Russell than "we have found this man a pest" in relation to Trinity "a pestilent fellow?"5 I think this exactly describes Russell, particularly since he, as did once the Apostle, defended himself in court trial which Whitehead himself witnessed. "I shall answer for myself with good courage" (Acts 24:10). Both Paul and Russell appeal, if condemned, to a higher court. The judge Felix, although almost persuaded that the accused has striven "always to have a clear conscience before God and before man" (Acts 24:16) nevertheless adjourns the trial, keeps the accused "in custody but . . . allow[s] him some liberty, [does] not . . . prevent any of his friends from looking after him." Whitehead visited Russell in prison. Felix was concerned enough to want to hear more from Paul. "But as he talked of justice, and chastity (KJV "temperance"), and the judgment to come, Felix is more concerned with keeping the favor of Paul’s enemies . . . ." (Acts 24: 27).

If Russell is Paul, who is Felix? Clearly Whitehead himself. He is saying as directly as he can that the condemned man is honest and has maintained his moral integrity, while he, as a judge, is dishonest and has sacrificed his integrity.

When G. H. Hardy talked with Whitehead he found him "exceedingly long-winded and apologetic . . . ."6 Paul Delany, granting that "the dismissal seems to have strained Whitehead’s nerves to the breaking-point" observes that the pamphlet of July 15, 1916 is "painfully incoherent and uncertain." 7

Whitehead’s institutional responsibilities are conceived complexly because there are various kinds of duties and levels of duty. He was taught at Sherborne to "serve God through church and state," and he is serving God through church, state, and university, and trying to balance them, or to find a sequence in which all duties can be fulfilled. Russell is more single-minded, for he has few duties: to tell the truth and to distinguish justice from injustice. I heard Whitehead in 1940 introduce Russell as William James Lecturer, and only now do I know one complex situation in which the humorous contrast shows what I believe is historically the division between the Anglican and the Puritan: "Bertie thinks I am muddleheaded; but then I think he is simpleminded." May I then conclude that the war brought out the moral muddle we are all in? And wouldn’t we all wish that when we recognize the manifest evils of war that by renouncing war we could end all war? By studying Whitehead and Russell together we face the problem in a way more concrete and many-faceted.

I would wish, now that we end on the note of tragedy, that I could struggle with the problem of whether I have imposed an Hegelian hierarchical order on Whitehead. I had not thought that I was an order-monist, but rather with Lotze, a pluralist, more Leibnizian. I had not thought of the world or history in such an organic unitary way of internal relations only, but of units in many ways independent and externally related, but I really don’t know Hegel as Lucas does, so I thank him for revealing something about my philosophy that I had not recognized.

The big point on which I appear to have convinced Lucas is that Russell must be counted among the metaphysicians and that his anti-metaphysics is a negative phase. Whitehead also had this phase, and although he deleted it later, counted metaphysics among the stories of cock and bull.8

Further Lucas has examined my argument and evidence that part of Russell’s constructive metaphysics was a philosophy of events and process, and had this been elaborated, rather than only the epistemology of Human Knowledge, Its Scope and Limits, there could have been a collaboration in a cooperative Process and Reality. I do not know whether Lucas has also agreed that on religion Russell, violently rejecting what he judged bad religion was always devoted to what he judged to be true religion. I count Russell a Puritan iconoclast in his village atheism, with a positive evaluation of what he regards as essential, such as love and knowledge, and above all devotion to Truth.

Lucas has not developed any criticism of my reinterpretation of the moral philosophy of Russell. Rather than conclude his ethical theory with insoluble problems of skeptical denial, I invoke a richer epistemology from Russell on which to base a constructive view of the virtues. From this I try to show Russell’s social, educational, political, and religious philosophies to be coherent applications. I believe studying Russell with Whitehead could enable us to find in the latter a similar philosophy of virtue. And, since Whitehead was more explicit on the status of beauty, we might make Russell’s aesthetic explicit. There is enough here on civilization to make the dialogue between Whitehead and Russell continue and when we do not have texts, we should use our imaginations and write imaginary conversations.

In the middle of my Russell, I considered the fascinating summation by Russell of the difference between them. "You think," said Whitehead to Russell, "the world is what it looks like in fine weather at noon-day. I think it is what it seems like in the early morning when one first awakes from a deep Sleep." Root metaphors are as important as Stephen C. Pepper argued in World Hypotheses, and Russell obliged an inquiring reader with an explication, but not by trying to tell "exactly what he meant by it." "Another way of expressing the difference between Whitehead and me is that he thought the world was like jelly and I thought it was like a heap of shot. In neither case was this a deliberate opinion, but only an imaginative picture."9

Just as we all know Whitehead’s emphasis on atomic units, so we should also recognize Russell’s presentation of organic unities, and not to take simple metaphors in an exclusive and dogmatic way. The advantage over atomism and organicism of a philosophy stressing modes of order is that any order, which I define as things in some definite relationship, rests on things in relations.

Since some of you may not have considered my evidence, consider to which philosopher the following vision should be attributed:

Suppose that on a dark night you see the beam from a searchlight, or a lighthouse, moving about the sky, or sweeping over the sea; the beam in some sense preserves its identity and yet you do not think of its being a "thing." Or again, suppose you hear "The Star Spangled Banner" sung; it is one tune, but you would not think of it as a "thing": it is a series of notes, and the notes themselves are essentially brief. When I say that there are not "things" I mean that tables and chairs and loaves of bread and so on are really just like the beam of light and the song. They are a series of more or less similar phenomena, connected, not by substantial identity, but by certain causal connections.10

Russell had said that "logic is the essence of philosophy" but when you examine his metaphysics, this as much as Whitehead’s, is the work of a philosophic poet who speaks in metaphor based on analogy. Although some empiricist phases made Russell seem to suffer from guilt and anxiety when doing metaphysics, here he is letting himself go, as free from bad intellectual conscience as Whitehead doing his magnificent Part V of Process and Reality.

We are studying compatible visions expressed in sublime poetry, and when we consider the two together, we face our tragedy. They both grew up in a period of peace and increasing economic and political progress, and saw their world falling apart. After the War came a vain effort called the League of Nations. I wish more could now be said for the United Nations. There are many expressions of Russell’s hope that our late modem world could do what early modem Europe did, "substitute for anarchy" the order of the victory of Royal Power. If order now can emerge it "will come about through the superior power of some one nation or group of nations. Only then will international democracy be possible. This view, which I have held for the last thirty years, encounters opposition from people of liberal outlook."11

Both my Whitehead and my Russell end on the note of tragedy. Russell wants above all to foresee a brighter future for humankind. But he was cast historically in the role of Cassandra. He foresaw the disastrous consequences of World War I, and thereafter the disastrous tyranny and aggression of Soviet Marxism, and since World War II, the armageddon of nuclear war. He was unable to formulate, with the fervor of a Messiah, a universal unifying new religion.12

Similarly, Whitehead’s philosophy of creative order has to face the entropic loss of all orders except randomness. Rather than bringing "order out of chaos," what the process may bring is "chaos out of order." I end asking "What of the ultimate whither?" "Why should not Reason, God, Forms, Creativity all return to nothing?" Whitehead expressed hope as an act of faith:

The present type of order in the world has arisen from an unimaginable past, and it will find its grave in an unimaginable future. There remain the inexhaustible realm of abstract forms, and creativity, with its shifting character ever determined afresh, by its own creatures and God, upon whose wisdom all forms of order depend.13

As many crucial problems of philosophy, such as the meanings of truth, Whitehead and Russell make more sense together than either makes apart. My defense of writing a pair of books is my conviction that the dialogue between them was a great cooperative achievement, perhaps the greatest, in the history of philosophy. The deepest tragedy of our age is the division between ideologies represented by Whitehead’s national loyalty in World War I vs. Russell’s pacifism. If we fall apart ideologically into right and left or whatever other polarization makes us cleave to one and to hate the other, is there no philosophic center to hold opposites together’? If the authors of Principia Mathematica, both lecturers of Trinity who were members of the secret brotherhood of the Apostles, both rather unworldly dons, improvident in budgetary prudence, both devoted to discovery of truth, can no longer maintain a sense of humor about the wisdom of fighting for victory or negotiating a peace, what hope remains for reason in a world gone mad?



1Alfred North Whitehead, To the Master and Fellows of Trinity College, Cambridge. Russell, Vol. 6, No. 1, Summer 1986. pp. 62-70

2 Paul Delany, "Russell’s Dismissal from Trinity: A Study in High Table Politics." Ibid., pp. 39-61.

3Whitehead, op. cit. pp. 68-69.

4Ibid.. p. 69.

5 The biblical quotations are from The Holy Bible: Containing the Old and New Testaments in Confraternity and Doway Texts, New York: Abradale Press, 1966. The King James Version has the translation: "we have found this man a pestilent fellow, and a mover of sedition." Acts XXIV: 5.

6 Paul Delany, op. cit., p. 44.

7Ibid., p.45.

8 My Alfred North Whitehead (Twayne’s English Authors Series, Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1984), p. 145, ft. 6: the origin of metaphysics, in contrast to science, has in preference for "some legend of those great twin brethren, the Cock and Bull." This was published in The Organization of Thought: Educational and Scientific (London, 1917, 1929), But this reference is omitted from The Aims of Education (New York; 1949). p. 111. With our paucity of biographical information, does this signify Whitehead’s conversion from positivism to speculative metaphysics?

9 My Bertrand Russell (Twayne’s English Authors Series, Boston: Twayne’s Publishers, 1986). p.91.

10 Ibid., p. 93. quoting from Russell, "Physics and Metaphysics", Saturday Review of Literature, Vol. 4, 26 May, 1928. p.910.

11Bertrand Russell. New Hope for a Changing World (London: G. Allen & Unwin, 1951), p. 77.

12 My Bertrand Russell, pp. 151-53.

13 My Alfred North Whitehead. p. 144. quoting from Religion in the Making (New York: Macmillan Co., 1927). p. 160,