Whitehead's Principle of Relativity

Ronald Desmet

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


In the early 1920s the British mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1941) criticized Albert Einstein's general theory of relativity. Whitehead rejected Einstein's original interpretation of gravity as published in the Annalen der Physik in 1916. In 1922 Whitehead bundled the majority of his lectures on an alternative and empirically almost equivalent theory in a book entitled The Principle of Relativity with Applications to Physical Science. My fascination for this 1922 book and for the Whitehead-Einstein-controversy concerning the relativistic theory of gravity was the starting point of the doctoral research that I finalized in the academic year 2009-2010, and of which the ambitious aim was to put an end to the ruling ignorance with regard to the philosophical, mathematical and scientific context from which Whitehead's critique and alternative theory emerged.
The aim of this paper is to highlight three of the lessons that I personally retain from my research. Firstly: Whitehead's critique of Einstein is above all a philosophical, and no scientific critique. Whitehead did not want to surpass Einstein's general theory of relativity with respect to mathematical formulae and empirical success; his aim was to harmonize its interpretation with common sense. Secondly: Whitehead's distinction between Einstein's formulae and Einstein's interpretation, a distinction that frees the road that leads to alternative interpretations, was inspired by Whitehead's former work as a mathematician, which was focused on the emancipation of pure mathematics. Thirdly: Whitehead's reinterpretation and the ensuing reformulation of Einstein' theory of gravity should not only be studied in the light of his philosophical and mathematical work, but should also be put in the relevant scientific context. Without taking into account both Whitehead's training as a mathematical physicist in Cambridge, and the broader British reception of Einstein's physics of relativity, Whitehead's alternative theory of gravity appears to be a creation out of nothing, and just as incomprehensible.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationWhitehead - The Algebra of Metaphysics
EditorsRonny Desmet, Michel Weber
PublisherLes éditions Chromatika
Number of pages9
ISBN (Print)978-2-930517-08-7
Publication statusPublished - 26 Jul 2010

Publication series

NameWhitehead - The Algebra of Metaphysics

Bibliographical note

Ronny Desmet and Michel Weber


  • philosophy of science
  • historical


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