Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Bertrand Russell: The Spirit of Solitude, 1872-1921 II

One of the benefits of Russell's acquaintance with Whitehead was his nomination to the Apostles, the Cambridge debating society reserved for those who were considered the most intellectually astute. Through the Apostles, Russell met his closest friends. Another rising star was G.E. Moore, whom Russell also befriended, but Moore was even less worldly than Russell, and, his conservative, Victorian moral outlook soon put them at odds. Moore is an interesting case for how certain intellectual fads become almost unintelligible to later generations. He became the rock star of British moral philosophy when he published Principia Ethica in 1903, and it is difficult for me to see how anyone saw any value in him as a thinker. Wittgenstein had the same reaction when he arrived in Cambridge a few years later.

Russell continued his mathematical studies until 1893, when he took the exam and passed with good but not spectacular results. Surprisingly, he had lost much of his interest in mathematics by then, and he immediately sold all of his math books. This had to do with the fact that he liked well-rounded people who could engage on a variety of topics, and he had found that the faculty and students in mathematics were too narrow in their outlooks for him. In particular, he seems to have noticed that some students were quite proficient in math but not in anything else. At that point he switched to philosophy, and distinguished himself to a greater degree, such that he was nominated to become a fellow at Trinity College after he completed the exam in 1894. His initial interest in philosophy concentrated on Spinoza, and he particularly focused on pantheistic monism in search for a religious model more satisfactory than Christianity.

Throughout his university years, Russell was interested in advancing his love life, but had little success. He had met Alys Pearsall Smith in 1889, and that relationship began to flourish in 1893. Uncle Rollo had his own house in the country, and the Russells usually spent their summers there. Among their neighbors were the Pearsall Smiths, a family of wealthy Quakers from Philadelphia, and Alys was a daughter five years older than Russell. She attended Bryn Mawr College and studied English and German literature. For the first few years, Russell let no one know of his interest in Alys. 1893 was a crucial year for him, because he reached the age of twenty-one, and Lady Russell and Uncle Rollo ceased to be his guardians. Furthermore, he inherited £20,000 from his father, and in those days that provided income sufficient for financial independence. Russell let Alys know of his interest, and they slowly pursued a relationship under the watchful eyes of Lady Russell.

It is a little embarrassing to read their letters, in which they refer to each other as "thee" and always try to maintain the highest moral tone. However, Russell was obsessed with sex, and the most amusing anecdote so far in the book concerns Russell letting Alys know his favorite Walt Whitman poem in Leaves of Grass. It was quite explicit for the time in its expression of sexual passion, though Russell would have been horrified to know that it may have referred to homosexual passion. What is amusing is that Alys was personally acquainted with Walt Whitman, and he had given her a copy of Leaves of Grass, from which she had removed the section containing that poem, because she thought that those poems were improper. In some respects, Alys and Bertrand had little in common; not only was she religious, but she was also an active participant in the temperance movement.

Lady Russell did everything in her power to keep Alys and Bertrand apart and disapproved of their proposed marriage. Her first line of argument was that Alys wasn't an aristocrat. From there she delved into family history, arguing that if they had children, they would suffer from mental illness. She brought up his father's epilepsy and his uncle's schizophrenia. She also revealed to him for the first time that his Aunt Agatha, who lived with them at Pembroke Lodge, had never married her fiancé because she had come under the insane delusion that he had murdered Lord Clanricarde. There were also suspicions about Alys's uncle. When her arguments failed to persuade Alys and Bertrand, she brought in medical advice on hereditary insanity. At that point, Alys and Bertrand agreed not to have children, but then Lady Russell's medical advisor said that contraception was unhealthy. Finally, Alys and Bertrand agreed not to have sex and to sleep in separate rooms. Bertrand's impression was that Lady Russell was just opposed to sex. Actually, Alys herself had very little interest in sex and was certainly less enthusiastic about it than Bertrand. Finally, they did get married in December, 1894, though Lady Russell, Uncle Rollo and Aunt Agatha did not attend the wedding. Bertrand's best man was his brother, Frank. They honeymooned in The Hague, where, with the predictable fumbling about, they had sex for the first time.

Thursday, September 17, 2020

Bertrand Russell: The Spirit of Solitude, 1872-1921 I

I'm getting off to a very slow start on this biography by Ray Monk. That isn't because I dislike it, but because I go through periods in which I don't feel like reading. So far I am finding it very interesting, and Monk is a good writer. As a philosophy professor, he is also in a good position to evaluate Russell's ideas. The biographies I read of Rousseau and Darwin were sometimes lacking in this respect, because the authors weren't as ideas-oriented as Monk seems to be.

Bertrand Russell came from an aristocratic, wealthy family. When Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries, he distributed the lands among the aristocracy, and Bertrand's ancestors were major beneficiaries. Bertrand's grandfather was John Russell, 1st Earl Russell, and served as Prime Minister. Earlier in his career he had met Napoleon. Like Charles Darwin's family, the Russells were Whigs, roughly the equivalent of current liberals. Bertrand was a son of Lord Russell's eldest son, John Russell, Viscount Amberley. He had an older brother, Frank, who was born in 1865, and a sister, Rachel, who was born in 1868. Bertrand was born on May 18, 1872. The children were initially raised at their family's house, Ravenscroft, in Monmouthshire, Wales. However, in 1874, when Bertrand was only two, both his mother and Rachel died from diphtheria. Viscount Amberley, who was said to be introverted, depressive and epileptic, himself died from bronchitis on January 9, 1876. This left Frank and Bertrand orphans, and they soon came under the care of their paternal grandmother and moved to Pembroke Lodge in Richmond Park, now part of London. Their grandfather, Lord Russell, was still alive then, but died in 1878.

There was a notable difference between the atmospheres at Ravenscroft and Pembroke Lodge. Ravenscroft was extremely liberal, and Viscount Amberley allowed his wife's lover to live with them in the house. They were not religious, and John Stuart Mill became Bertrand's godfather. Lady Russell at Pembroke Lodge was not especially conservative, but she was religious and insensitive to the needs of Frank and Bertrand. Bertrand managed to fit in, because he was introverted and non-confrontational, but Frank was extremely rebellious. As a consequence, Frank was eventually sent away to Winchester College, while Bertrand was educated at home by tutors. Frank considered Bertrand a prig, and they don't seem to have been on friendly terms. The house was also occupied by their uncle Rollo, whom both Frank and Bertrand disliked. Rollo is described as being both introverted and ineffectual.

One of the developing themes that interests me is the variety of mental illnesses within the family. Besides Rollo, Viscount Amberley had another brother, William, who was diagnosed as schizophrenic early in his life and lived most of it in an institution. As noted, Amberley was disposed toward depression. Bertrand felt detached from people and had difficulty relating to his environment. Frank was highly temperamental and often got into conflicts. After Winchester, he enrolled at Balliol College, Oxford. However, he became embroiled in a mysterious scandal when a friend from Winchester visited him, and there were rumors of homosexuality. Because Frank remained vitriolic, he was expelled from Balliol, an unusual measure at the time, and never returned. These kinds of things have interested me for many years, because there has always been what I think of as a unique English oddness that is never quite defined, but which probably exists as a result of an unusual collective psychiatric state that has a genetic basis.

It sounds as if Russell was very stiff and uncomfortable growing up, and the lack of exposure to a variety of people probably hampered his social development. In his teens he studied mathematics at a school in London and found the other students very crude. He was interested in girls and sex, but was extremely awkward in establishing relationships. Similarly, he enthusiastically sought friendship with another boy whom he thought was just like him, but that proved to be a mistake. He developed a rich private life in which he came to appreciate the poetry of Shelley. However, his real talent was in mathematics, and, like many mathematicians, he was attracted to the field because it conveyed greater certainty than other fields.

As far as I've read, Russell has been tutored for the Trinity College, Cambridge entrance exam and passes it. Arriving in Cambridge in 1890, he immediately makes friends and is greatly excited to be able to engage in conversations with intelligent people. He gets off to a very good start, because Alfred North Whitehead, a fellow at Trinity, immediately recognizes his talent and recommends him to others. Of course, his aristocratic credentials are also highly beneficial for him, though it seems that he still would have done well without them.

Saturday, September 5, 2020


I had been reading a book on AI that seemed promising at first, but the further I got into it the methodology seemed inappropriate. The author teaches law, and, with a perspective that emphasizes legal theory and analytic philosophy, he constructs arguments about what counts as good. The beginning of the book argues that work isn't good by examining several propositions and includes some empirical research, and later in the book he apparently writes about how the absence of work could enable a utopia. However, I got tired of his reasoning process and gave up before the halfway point. My default method for thinking about these kinds of things rests on knowledge of human behavior, particularly behavior that is encoded in our genes, and a book about humans that relies primarily on abstract propositions and logical arguments from those propositions reminds me of a bad philosophy class. It is possible that I would have appreciated the author's ideas more if he had presented them differently, but I found it difficult to take his arguments seriously. His manner of presentation rendered his ideas unconvincing. This author was on a podcast with Sean Carroll, which I didn't listen to. It is surprising to me that people such as Sean Carroll, who otherwise seem exceptionally intelligent, are unable to see the limitations of contemporary philosophy. I have yet to find a truly compelling book on AI, but the popularity of the subject is increasing, and there will probably be a better one sooner or later. It is such an important field that people from various academic disciplines are attempting to colonize it and take over. I'm rooting for the zoologists, not the physicists or the philosophers.

As things stand, I will be reading a long two-volume biography of Bertrand Russell. Russell is interesting to me because he had a life that spanned many periods. He was alive in 1872, when Charles Darwin, George Eliot and G.H. Lewes attended the séance that I mentioned, and he was still alive in 1970, when I was an undergraduate in college. Although he is considered one of the most important philosophers of the twentieth century, his significant work in the philosophy of mathematics was completed when he was quite young, and no one pays much attention to it now. When I was in college it wasn't covered at all. His purely philosophical work is probably part of mathematics, and Russell wouldn't have been famous if it hadn't been for his popular writings and political activism. I am confident that I will enjoy this particular biography, because it is written by Ray Monk, who wrote a good biography of Ludwig Wittgenstein, which I read about thirty years ago. I am a little hesitant to read about analytic philosophers, but I now feel that I have a strong enough understanding of the strange context in which they wrote that I can properly assess their work.

Finally the heatwave has ended, and we are getting a satisfying preview of fall. There are too many tomatoes at the moment, and we will probably have to give some away. The variety of Brandywine tomatoes that I grew this year is quite good, and I plan to grow them again next year. I have grown tomatoes intermittently for about twenty-six years and am always looking for ones which both taste good and fit the environment in which I live. I have more or less finished my outdoor chores for the season and am awaiting leaves and snow. All of the firewood from the property has been cut, split and stacked, and there will also be kiln-dried firewood coming from Pittsfield in October and November. We will have more than enough for even the coldest winter.

Over time, weird things happen on this blog. For unknown reasons, there is a web crawler that shows up as being from Hong Kong that has been visiting this site constantly for over three weeks, with 3600 hits. Also, all of a sudden, I got several hits from Facebook on my Meliorism post. There may not be any meaning to any of this, but it still captures my attention.

Because the number of COVID-19 cases here remains low, we have been socializing a little more. We recently invited an elderly friend over for dinner, and we were invited to dinner with friends in town. We also picked apples at the property of some other friends in Cornwall who have eight acres of apples which currently have no commercial market. The college has opened for the fall, and so far they have only two cases of COVID-19. There is a chance that the pandemic will intensify after Labor Day – we'll have to wait and see. Life is easier when you don't spend all day every day with the same person.