Gertrude Stein (1874–1946)

It is well known that Gertrude Stein (1874–1946) considered Whitehead a “genius”.[1] In the Autobiography, Principia Mathematica is referred to as a “great book”.[2] Stein (and Toklas) made an extended visit with the Whiteheads during World War I.[3] Principia Mathematica was published in 1910-1913. Indeed, the logicist thesis (that all of mathematics can be derived from logic) of PM became well known in 1903 to everyone in the English-speaking world interested in contemporary philosophy through the publication in that year of Bertrand Russell’s The Principles of Mathematics.

From the early stages of her career Stein was fascinated with the power of novel uses of language. She was also a person well trained at Harvard in the sciences as well as the humanities.[4] It would seem hardly surprising that a person with such interests and training would be attracted to the logicism so famously elaborated by Russell and Whitehead—the wonder of the simple and repetitious language of symbolic logic from which all the complexities of mathematics could be derived. Why wouldn’t such a language appeal to Stein’s experimental imagination and taste for abstraction? Did she believe that this language could be adapted for her own purposes, purposes distinct, of course, from the purposes of Whitehead and Russell?

Although I would be the last to suggest that there were not numerous other important influences on Stein’s distinctive uses of language, I suggest that echoes of symbolic logic can often be found in her writing. Her repetitious use of “All” and “There is” at the beginning of lines appears to be an echo of universal and existential quantifiers. Repetitious use of “if”, “not”, “or”, “and” appears to be an echo of the conditionals, negations, disjunctions and conjunctions that fill any page of symbolic logic. To exemplify:

Or better so or may not be meant
All which they plan as theirs in theirs and joined
Or better not or better not all alone
Not if they call in early or to care
Or manage or arrange or value
Or relieve or better like
Or not at all as nearly once compared
Or made it to be gained
Or finally as lost
Or by them not detained
Or valued as equally
Or just as much established by their lost
Or finally as well prepared
Or may they not without them which they cherish
Not only by them but by the time
Not only will they but it is one to like
Or manage just as well as if
As if they planned theirs which they know
Or in as well as do.[5]

Here is another example:

If lillies are lily white if they exhaust noise and distance and
even dust, if they dusty will dirt a surface that has no extreme
grace, if they do this and it is not necessary it is not at all
necessary if they do this they need a catalogue.[6]

Her use of exceptionally simple predicates seems similar to what is found in logic where a predicate can be symbolized by a single letter. Her often-monotonous use of the copula (“is”, “are”) to connect subject and predicate is eerily reminiscent of logic. Finally, sometimes the tedious meter of Stein’s lines resembles the tedious rhythm heard in symbolic logic when read aloud.

I have asked Ulla Dydo, the foremost biographer of Stein, about the possible influence of mathematical logic on Stein.[7] She is agnostic on the subject, pleading ignorance of symbolic logic. But she welcomes research in the area, as does Timothy Young, the curator in charge of Stein’s papers at Yale’s Beinecke Library. Dydo and Young are aware, of course, that Whiteheadian influences other than in symbolic logic have been extensively discussed in the secondary literature.[8]

I have a hunch that some European will find this conundrum an attractive dissertation topic. Such a combination of interests and competencies is nowadays extremely rare in the U.S., even in Comparative Literature departments. To do it properly will require at least a semester working in the vast Stein archive at Yale. But you couldn’t ask for a nicer place to work than the Beinecke. The curators are knowledgeable and unfailingly helpful.


[1] Gertrude Stein, Writings 1903-1932 (Vol. 1) (New York: Library of America, 1998), p. 661. This is an updated version of my “On Gertrude Stein and Mathematical Logic: A Possible Influence that Calls for Exploration”, published in Michel Weber et Pierfrancesco Basile (sous la direction de), Chromatikon III. Annuaire de la philosophie en procès — Yearbook of Philosophy in Process, Louvain-la-Neuve, Presses universitaires de Louvain, 2007, pp. 275-277.

[2] Ibid., pp. 807ff. “Gertrude Stein and Doctor Whitehead walked endlessly around the country. They talked of philosophy and history, it was during these days that Gertrude Stein realized how completely it was Doctor Whitehead and not Russell who had the ideas for their great book.”

[3] Cf. Victor Augustus Lowe’s A. N. Whitehead. The Man and His Work, Volume II: 1910-1947 (edited by J. B. Schneewind, Baltimore, Maryland and London, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990), pp. 29-31.

[4] Ibid., p. 738. “One of them [Stein’s friends at Harvard and Radcliffe], a young philosopher and mathematician [Leon Solomons] who was doing research work in psychology left a definite mark on her [Gertrude Stein’s] life. She and he together worked out a series of experiments in automatic writing […].” The results were contained in Stein’s first publication. Both Stein and Solomons were students of Harvard philosopher Josiah Royce (1855–1916) who during that period made a close study of the mathematical logic of his friend philosopher-scientist-mathematician Charles Sanders Peirce (1839–1914) and became convinced that mathematical logic could help solve the problems of metaphysics.

[5] Gertrude Stein, Writings 1932-1946 (Vol. 2) (New York: Library of America, 1998), p. 109.

[6] Gertrude Stein, Writings 1903-1932 (Vol. 1), p. 316. When I provided some of my Stein quotations to my old friend and colleague the mathematical logician and historian of mathematical logic John Corcoran (SUNY Buffalo), his reaction was that it would be quite impossible for any mathematical logician familar with Stein’s education and admiration for Whitehead in general, and for PM in particular, to doubt that she was influenced by the language of symbolic logic.

[7] Ulla E. Dydo, Gertrude Stein: The Language that Rises, 1923–1934 (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2003). Janet Malcolm, Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2007). James R. Mellow, Charmed Circle: Gertrude Stein and Company (New York: Praeger, 1974).

[8] See, e.g., Steven Meyer, Irresistable Dictation: Gertrude Stein and the Correlations of Writing and Science (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2001).

Author Information

Peter H. Hare (1935–2008)
Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Philosophy
State University of New York at Buffalo

How to Cite this Article

Hare, Peter H., “Gertrude Stein (1874–1946)”, last modified 2008, The Whitehead Encyclopedia, Brian G. Henning and Joseph Petek (eds.), originally edited by Michel Weber and Will Desmond, URL = <>.