Mathematician who coined the term mind-stuff

William Kingdon Clifford was a British mathematician and philosopher. In his short life he produced very important and far reaching mathematical and philosophical works. I will let you read the encyclopedia articles and the original books listed below for details. My purpose in this blog entry is to point out the mysterious connection between him and Albert Einstein. The second reason is to remind everyone that he was the one who coined the term “mind-stuff.”

I also would like to draw attention to his wife Lucy Clifford who was a very interesting personality. She was a novelist. There is an important book titled “Such Silver Currents” by Monty Chisholm (Published 2002, Lutterworth Press Cambridge.) telling the story of William and Lucy Clifford. They were married for only four years before his death.  As a couple they were in touch with many famous scientific and literary personalities. After William’s early death, Lucy became a close friend and confidante of Henry James and she had a wide circle of friends including George Eliot, Rudyard Kipling, Thomas Hardy, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Thomas Huxley, Leslie Stephen and Virginia Woolf.

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Like many of his mathematical contributions the term “mind-stuff” is rather ageless and still used today. Shrii Shrii Anandamurti used it, and I use it to refer to the primordial fabric of the universe.

Clifford defined “mind-stuff” as follows (1878, “On the Nature of Things-in-Themselves,” Mind, Vol. 3, No. 9, pp. 57–67):

“That element of which, as we have seen, even the simplest feeling is a complex, I shall call Mind-stuff. A moving molecule of inorganic matter does not possess mind or consciousness; but it possesses a small piece of mind-stuff. When molecules are so combined together as to form the film on the under side of a jelly-fish, the elements of mind-stuff which go along with them are so combined as to form the faint beginnings of Sentience. When the molecules are so combined as to form the brain and nervous system of a vertebrate, the corresponding elements of mind-stuff are so combined as to form some kind of consciousness; that is to say, changes in the complex which take place at the same time get so linked together that the repetition of one implies the repetition of the other. When matter takes the complex form of a living human brain, the corresponding mind-stuff takes the form of a human consciousness, having intelligence and volition.”

Clifford died at the age of 34 from tuberculosis. Just 11 days after Clifford’s death Albert Einstein was born in 1879.  This fact is mentioned often. The reason is that there is a remarkable continuity of thought in their ideas. Clifford presented the idea that matter and energy are simply different types of curvature of space. This is exactly the idea that Einstein developed later culminating in his Theory of Relativity in 1915.

Most of Clifford’s works were published posthumously.

Elements of Dynamic, 2 vol. (1878, 1887)

Seeing and Thinking (1879)

Lectures and Essays (1879)

Mathematical Papers (1882)

The Common Sense of the Exact Sciences, completed by Karl Pearson (1885).

These books are available at Google Books as free books. You can read them by clicking on the links I provided above. We are grateful to Google for this great service.

Encyclopedia of Britannica


The obituary at Times


About Suresh Emre

I have worked as a physicist at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory and the Superconducting Super Collider Laboratory. I am a volunteer for the Renaissance Universal movement. My main goal is to inspire the reader to engage in Self-discovery and expansion of consciousness.
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