A rare, six-page letter written by Alfred North Whitehead, one of the major philosophers and mathematicians of the 20th century, will be the subject of a half-day symposium at the Library of Congress. The letter was recently donated to the Library and will be housed in the Manuscript Division.
The symposium will focus on the historical context of the letter and on Whitehead and his intellectual focus in a number of fields. The event will take place from 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 17
, in Room 119 on the first floor in the Thomas Jefferson Building, 10 First St. S.E., Washington, D.C.
Sponsored by the Library’s John W. Kluge Center and the Manuscript Division, the symposium is free and open to the public; no tickets or reservations are needed. The letter and a transcript will be on display.
Whitehead (1861-1947) was a British mathematician, logician and philosopher best known for his work in mathematical logic and the philosophy of science. In collaboration with Bertrand Russell, he authored the landmark three-volume “Principia Mathematica” (1910), and contributed significantly to 20th-century logic, philosophy of science and metaphysics.
Carolyn Brown, director of the Library’s Office of Scholarly Programs, will moderate the conference. The following scholars will give presentations:
- Roland Faber, Kilsby Family/John B. Cobb Jr. Professor of Process Studies at Claremont School of Theology, and executive director of the Center for Process Studies and the Whitehead Research Project at Claremont Graduate University, will give the keynote address “Whitehead’s Work and Impact, Past and Future,” which will provide an overview of Whitehead and his legacy in a range of fields.
- George Lucas of the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis will discuss “Whitehead, Wittgenstein and 20th Century Philosophy and Ethics.”
- Michael Epperson of California State University in Sacramento will present “Interpretations of Contemporary Physics.”
- David Finkelstein of the Georgia Institute of Technology will discuss “Reflections on ‘Principia Mathematica,’” which will address the impact of Whitehead in logic and mathematics.
- Derek Malone-France of George Washington University will present “Kant and Whitehead.”
- Ron Phipps of the International Center for Process Philosophy, Science and Education will discuss “Significance of Whitehead’s 1936 Letter.”
- Timothy Eastman of Plasmas International in Silver Spring, Md., will present “Whitehead in the Tradition of Process Thought.”
- Henry S. Leonard, Jr., the letter’s donor, will talk about its provenance.
The six-page letter was handwritten in 1936 by Whitehead to his former student and personal assistant, Henry S. Leonard. In the letter, Whitehead responds to and comments on an essay written by Leonard regarding the conflict between speculative philosophy and logical positivism. Whitehead comments on the relationship between philosophy and science, and also reveals his attitudes toward, and appraisals of, his collaborator Bertrand Russell, Ludwig Wittgenstein and the father of logical positivism, Rudolf Carnap.
The letter is rare because Whitehead seldom corresponded with anyone, and a receipt of a letter by his friends or colleagues was described as “rare and cause of a communal celebration,” according to Leonard Bruno, a historian in the Library’s Manuscript Division. Further, at his death, Whitehead’s family carried out his instructions and destroyed his papers.
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