Whitehead and the British Reception of Einstein's Relativity

Ronald Desmet, Daniel A. Dombrowski (Editor)

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle


The scope of this biographical essay on Alfred North Whitehead
(1861-1947) is very limited. To start with, leaving out his career as a
mathematician at Cambridge University (1880-1910) and his career as a
philosopher at Harvard University (1924-47), I focus on his involve-
ment with Albert Einstein's theories of relativity during the London period
of his life (1910-24). Furthermore, numerous mathematical, physical, and
philosophical influences converge in Whitehead's work on relativity, but I
only touch upon the influence of a restricted number of mathematical
physicists and philosophers, and only treat his friendship with Lord
Haldane in more detail, e.g., by taking into account some unpublished
letters from Whitehead to Haldane which are part of the Haldane Papers
at the National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh.
And yet, despite the limited scope of this essay, it contains some
hints to enrich the part of Victor Lowe's Alfred North Whitehead: The Man
and His Work dealing with Whitehead's London period. I explain
in more detail than Lowe why Hermann Minkowski and a number of
mathematical physicists inspired by Minkowski, and why some of the
members of the Aristotelian Society, were important influences when
Whitehead developed his views on relativity. Also, I add a relevant
fact, missing in Lowe's biography: Whitehead and Einstein discussed
their divergent views on relativity in person on Friday, June 10th, and
Saturday, June 11, 1921.
The enrichment of Lowe's account is important, both for philosophers
and historians of relativity. The former can learn that Whitehead's philoso-
phy of relativity did not arise out of the blue, but can only be understood
properly against the background of the British reception of relativity. The
latter can learn that Whitehead's case is a perfect--and hence, unjustly
neglected--example to illustrate a number of the recently acquired insights
into the dynamics of the British reception of Einstein's theories.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-44
Number of pages44
JournalProcess Studies
Issue number11
Publication statusPublished - 2007

Bibliographical note

Daniel A. Dombrowski


  • philosophy of science
  • historical

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