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.

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