Saturday, November 14, 2020

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

During 1912 and 1913, Russell's relationships with Ottoline Morrell and Ludwig Wittgenstein evolved. I think that he was confused by both of them and tended to draw false conclusions. He clung to Ottoline partly because he often feared that he would go mad if he didn't have stabilizing influences in his life. His attraction to mathematical logic was largely driven by a need to find stable truths that might put him at ease. In this respect, he reminds me a little of John Nash, Jr., the schizophrenic mathematician portrayed in A Beautiful Mind. Though Nash was a far more accomplished mathematician than Russell, his drive for mathematical clarity was probably similar to that of Russell, who had schizophrenia in his family. If Russell was schizophrenic, his case was relatively mild compared to that of Nash. Nevertheless, Lady Russell was probably quite serious when she admonished him not to have children. When Russell wasn't either working on logic problems or seeing Ottoline, he soon became frantic and manic. His efforts to educate Ottoline in mathematical logic were completely futile and contributed to the deterioration of their relationship. Perhaps to impress her, demonstrating an artistic side to himself which he actually did not possess, he wrote a novel, which sounds as if it was pretty bad. The protagonist was a man just like him, and the book was all dialogue, with no plot or action. Ottoline was at heart more of a bohemian than he was and preferred the company of Bloomsbury people such as Lytton Strachey, who was not only more fun to be around, but also gay, which removed the sexual pressure that women often find onerous. Ottoline seems to have been quite experienced sexually, whereas Russell was not, and it seems that she disliked his scrawny body and bad breath, and perhaps other aspects of his anatomy. Compared to her other friends, Russell was often insensitive, lacking in feeling and demanding. She increasingly spent long periods away at a spa in Lausanne, and finally, in 1913, they agreed to see less of each other, and Russell stopped writing to her daily. 

The problems with Wittgenstein are a little harder to sort out. At first, Russell was impressed by Wittgenstein's enthusiasm and sharp mind, and he liked to use him as a sounding board for his ideas. However, Wittgenstein was always blunt when he disagreed with something, and his manner was so intense that he was difficult to manage in the dignified setting of the university. In fact, it seems to me that Wittgenstein would never have had a career in philosophy if Russell hadn't taken on the role of his advocate from the beginning. With encouragement, Wittgenstein joined the Apostles, but he disliked the format and soon resigned. Apparently he was an introvert, because he preferred very small groups. He also became extremely critical of Russell's writings when he thought that something was incorrect. I think that Wittgenstein was a more complex person than Russell, and that Monk doesn't really capture his essence here or in Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius. Wittgenstein was the runt in a family of wealthy, talented and musical nonpracticing Jews in Vienna. He was also homosexual, or possibly bisexual, but lived mainly an asexual life. He had a more nuanced drive to discover the mystical than Russell: in Russell's case, I think mysticism related only to the existential crisis that he experienced as a result of his latent schizophrenia. We may never know exactly why Wittgenstein behaved like a tortured soul – I wouldn't rule out the possibility that it became part of his act. On the other hand, he did seem to have a stronger drive for intellectual purity than Russell. For me, when you look at Wittgenstein in his context at Cambridge, it is bizarre that he managed to lead a successful career as a philosopher without following any of the norms: most of his ideas were expressed enigmatically, and it would be difficult to sum them up. Wittgenstein represents a paradox in modern philosophy, because, rather than providing a model in clarity, his recorded words are often open to various interpretations.

By 1913, Russell considered Wittgenstein to be his successor, whatever that meant, though they were no longer seeing eye-to-eye on several questions. As I mentioned earlier, I have little or no interest in the substance of their philosophical disagreements, so I'm not going to spend time on them. I still haven't arrived at the point when I am reading a lot, but hope to pick up my pace whenever winter finally arrives.

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