Friday, October 30, 2020

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

 1911 was a busy year for Russell. He lectured at Trinity College, became president of The Aristotelian Society, wrote essays on popular philosophy, proofread subsequent volumes of Principia Mathematica, courted Ottoline Morrell, split with Alys and met Ludwig Wittgenstein.

Early in the year, he spent an evening alone with Ottoline, and although they didn't consummate their relationship then, they planned to pursue one. Ottoline had an open marriage with her husband, Philip, and they lived together with their daughter. Ottoline was slow to reveal facts about herself, and Russell wasn't exactly quick to catch on. She was in the process of breaking off an affair with the artist and critic Roger Fry and was continuing one with the artist Henry Lamb. Initially, Russell naïvely insisted that she stop having sex with her husband. He also suggested that they could have a child together, not knowing that she had already had an operation to prevent pregnancy. Alys's brother, Logan, became enraged when he heard about Ottoline and Russell's affair, and, with Alys, informed him that Russell and Alys could remain separated and not divorce as long as Russell never stayed in the same building as Ottoline. This marked the end of Russell's relationship with Alys, though, apparently, she continued to love him for the rest of her life.

Russell's relationship with Ottoline seems to have been problematic from the start. Obviously he had made a serious mistake by marrying Alys, but there is little evidence that he reflected on that mistake and arrived at a better alternative. I think that Alys was a rather ordinary American woman, and that Russell probably wasn't aware of the relevant cultural differences. She had a predictable do-good Quaker orientation with little interest in ideas per se. Ottoline was an improvement in the sense that, like Russell, she was an English aristocrat and was not explicitly interested in having a positive impact on mankind. However, she had a highly developed personal sense of religion which Russell attempted to argue away. Though he correctly believed that the Christian God does not exist, he rather insensitively forced his ideas on Ottoline and persuaded her to read Spinoza, something that she never would have done on her own. Ottoline was above all a high-society woman and a patron of the arts: she was not especially intellectual and understandably had no interest in arriving at a logically consistent and accurate view of the world. My guess is that she was dazzled by the attention of someone with Russell's intellect, but that alone was not enough to sustain a lasting relationship. To make matters worse, she was not physically attracted to him. By early 1912 she seemed stressed out by her relationship with him and seemed ready for a change.

Ludwig Wittgenstein had been studying aeronautical engineering in Manchester but was losing interest in it. He read The Principles of Mathematics, became interested in mathematical logic and visited Gottlob Frege, who suggested that he study with Russell. He descended on Cambridge and followed Russell around, aggressively engaging in arguments. At first, Russell thought that he was a demented eccentric. However, at that time hardly anyone attended Russell's lectures, and Russell became impressed by Wittgenstein's intellect. By then, Russell associated his mathematical work with depression, because his serious works were all written when his relationship with Alys was in a dismal state. His relationship with Ottoline seems to have lowered his opinion of formal philosophical work, and he was starting to think that academic philosophy wasn't all that important. Wittgenstein played into this, because he was able to understand Russell's work without any formal philosophical training. This was the beginning of Wittgenstein's illustrious career as a philosopher, and I am once again surprised to see how personal bonds that originated in a haphazard series of events made it possible. This arrangement may have worked for Russell, because later on it permitted him to ease out of academia by replacing himself with his protégé. 

The Aristotelian Society hosted Henri Bergson, then a famous French philosopher. For the occasion, Russell read Bergson's works and didn't think much of them. I often find it interesting to see how divergent British and French culture are, when you consider their long history as neighbors. The British have historically seemed willfully ignorant of French culture, and the French, perhaps accurately, have seemed to consider the British crude. When you recognize that the Norman conquest was a seminal event in British history, it is a little surprising how different the two countries seem today. 

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

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

Russell's relationship with Alys deteriorated continuously during the early 1900's. He told her that he didn't love her, but that they could stay married if she wished. Since money was not a problem for them, they lived separately for periods, but Alys was so visibly depressed that at one point Beatrice Webb took her away on a vacation to Switzerland. Evelyn Whitehead was also sympathetic. There was an episode, when she discovered a lump in one of her breasts, in which Alys was disappointed to learn that it wasn't cancerous and that she would live. I am reminded of Simone de Beauvoir's story, "The Woman Destroyed." Russell was sporadically interested in other women but does not appear to have acted on it. The problem was more than just not being in love with Alys: he disliked her and didn't think his friends liked her either. He found her dull. I think that Russell must have been naïve and impetuous at times or he would never have married Alys. He preferred racier women, such as Alys's elder sister, Mary, and others whom he ran into over time. Although Alys wasn't stupid, Russell found her boring, and he was no longer sexually attracted to her.

The decline in their relationship coincided with a heavy workload between writing The Principles of Mathematics, and then, with Whitehead, Principia Mathematica. Russell corresponded with Gottlob Frege, the eminent logician, and other scholars of mathematical logic. Monk sums up the works as follows:

Assessing what was achieved by the Herculean labors involved in writing Principia Mathematica is difficult. What it set out to do was to demonstrate conclusively that the whole of mathematics could be derived from logic, but, whereas, in The Principles of Mathematics, it was remarkably clear what this meant (it meant, essentially, that all propositions about numbers could be re-cast into propositions about classes), in Principia, with the complications to the basic logical theory that Russell had felt compelled to add, it is much less clear. The picture is still further muddied by the fact that, for technical reasons, Russell and Whitehead were impelled to add to their stock of 'logical' axioms some that hardly fitted the notion of trivial truisms with which Russell had begun....

Principia Mathematica was published in several volumes by Cambridge University Press, starting in 1910. Since it was guaranteed not to sell well, Russell and Whitehead had to pay for part of the printing costs and lost money on it. To this day, practically no one has read Principia Mathematica in its entirety. By 1910, Russell's professional credentials were well-established. To me, this is the least interesting aspect of Russell's life, as I don't see a value to mathematical logic except as an obscure branch of mathematics: I don't consider it to be philosophy. In psychological terms, Russell didn't have what it took to be a great mathematician, and his strategy therefore evolved into annexing mathematics to the field of philosophy, a move that I don't think clarified anything, though it provided the appearance of elevating the importance of the field of philosophy.

In my view, Russell was more significant as an essayist and political activist than as an academic or philosopher. His essay writing and political activism were spread out intermittently throughout his life. I think that he was more effective as a public intellectual than the ones we have today, both in the U.S. and the U.K. We have, for example, Noam Chomsky, whom I think of as an old academic windbag, and Paul Krugman, whom I think of as a younger academic and an ineffectual journalist. One of Russell's early interests was women's suffrage, and he opposed the use of tariffs proposed by Joseph Chamberlain.  He also became directly involved in politics by supporting the reelection of Philip Morrell in South Oxfordshire in 1910. Morrell was an Oxford friend of Alys's brother, Logan. Through this connection he came to know Ottoline, Philip's wife, and they were mutually attracted, leading to Russell's first affair. 

I'm not moving any faster through the book, but may pick up speed when the presidential election is over and winter finally arrives. Russell was starting to feel old in 1910, when he was thirty-eight, but still had sixty years to live.

Sunday, October 11, 2020

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

Bertrand and Alys continued their honeymoon throughout Europe for several months and returned to England in the summer of 1895. Russell had to write a dissertation as part of his qualification for a six-year fellowship at Trinity College, and his topic was the stability of geometric shapes in space. As it turned out, his examiners, one of whom was Whitehead, completely disagreed with his thesis and found it to be incorrect. Although this was an embarrassment to Russell, it didn't prevent him from receiving the fellowship. In any case, the fellowship had few specific requirements, and he donated his pay to the newly-formed London School of Economics. Russell's social rank seems to have benefited him professionally even more than Charles Darwin's did. I am reminded of Darwin's first paper, the one about the geology of Glen Roy, which was also completely wrong, but didn't prevent him from joining the Royal Society. It is important to know that, especially in a country like England, social background can be a significant determinant of who succeeds and who doesn't in a professional context.

At this stage, Russell and Alys were both interested in socialism and became friends of Beatrice and Sidney Webb. They traveled to Berlin in 1895, and on their return to England Russell presented a paper to the Fabian Society. Russell was also writing An Essay on the Foundations of Geometry around this time. In 1896, he and Alys went on a trip to the U.S. to meet her extended family, who made arrangements for him to lecture at Bryn Mawr and Johns Hopkins. On that trip, besides flirting with a few women, Russell realized that the mathematics taught at Cambridge was a little behind the times compared to that in Germany and the U.S. He was in a transitional period in which he was losing interest in the Hegelian concepts of J.M.E. McTaggart, the Cambridge idealist philosopher, and becoming more interested in mathematical certainty. Russell's first important book was The Principles of Mathematics, which was written and rewritten over several years and was a considerable intellectual effort. It was published in 1903. Monk is covering Russell's intellectual development quite thoroughly, but I find it mostly boring, as I'm not interested in math and, frankly, don't see any value in Russell's contributions to philosophy. So, while Monk is being quite conscientious, I am tending to ignore those aspects of the biography in favor of the sociological aspects of Russell's life.

During this period, it became clear that Bertrand and Alys had little in common. For a time, they lived with the Whiteheads in Cambridge, and Bertrand developed an interest in Whitehead's wife, Evelyn. Nothing came of it, but it is representative of the kind of attention Bertrand paid to women, presumably because he noticed something about them that was lacking in Alys. Monk is very slowly drawing out Russell's personality, and, on the whole, it doesn't seem very pleasant. While he was quite sociable, he was snobby and ambitious, and he seems to have been emotionally detached most of the time. He had a theatrical way of describing himself, and Monk believes that he manufactured unconvincing accounts of having had meaningful epiphanies following certain events. When Lady Russell died in 1898, he made no mention of it in his writings, which seems rather odd, considering that she had been the most important person in his life up to that point. He also seems to have been insensitive to Alys's plight as she became visibly depressed about their failing marriage. Looking at Russell from this distance, it seems that the whole point of his marriage was, for him, the ability to have sex without disobeying any rules. He doesn't seem to have had the slightest idea of what his responsibilities would be in a reciprocal relationship. Ironically, as Monk points out, Russell had some sort of sexual problem during this time, and it may have been impotence.

Let me briefly explain my views on why I don't think that Russell's professional work is important. The main reason is that his central idea was decisively refuted by Kurt Gödel in 1931. I haven't reached that point in the book yet, but Monk is going to make a case that Russell paved the way for Alan Turing, John von Neumann and the theory of computing, which seems like a stretch to me. I think that Russell was probably trying to glamorize philosophy by linking it to mathematics, which offered the promise of greater certainty. For me, philosophy is an inherently murky subject and ought to remain so. Russell's effort may be similar to the later fetishization of mathematical beauty by physicists and the overuse of mathematics by economists. I see mathematics as an exotic form of language that is chiefly beneficial in the sciences, because it offers new ways of describing reality – exotic ways which allow us to develop concepts which could not be readily attained by means of ordinary language. Pure mathematics may have appeal to some, but I don't think that mathematics in general would be of much importance if it didn't have practical applications. Mathematics opens a window far wider than the languages that we use in our daily lives, because it permits us to describe phenomena, such as quantum mechanics and non-Euclidean space, which fall completely outside our daily experiences. In the case of Russell, as far as I can tell, he had little interest in science, so, if anything, he was not likely to produce any practical ideas. Chronologically falling between Darwin and Einstein, and never himself having produced any scientific ideas, I think that Russell was mainly a popularizer of some complex ideas, but not a major thinker by most measures. One might say that Russell, though highly intelligent, was significantly surpassed in mathematics by others during his lifetime.

Monk had enormous resources available to write Russell's biography, since Russell wrote about two thousand words a day throughout most of his adult life. To put this in context, I am currently writing about eight hundred words a week at best. The going is so slow in Monk's book – and this is only the first of two – that I'll have to pick up my pace, or I'll be on this for many months. However, I like to spend a lot of time on the early years, because that is usually the best period for seeing a person's true nature.