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.

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