Friday, January 22, 2021

Bertrand Russell: The Ghost of Madness, 1921-1970 I

This second volume, also by Ray Monk, covers the second half of Bertrand Russell's life. It gets off to a rather unpromising start, with Monk warning that during this period Russell seemed increasingly egocentric to his friends, and they also thought that the quality of his writing had declined. Beatrice Webb was disappointed that he didn't produce any significant works on politics or socialism. Ottoline Morrell was disappointed that he wasted his time raising his son, John, rather than engaging in important intellectual work. By 1922, he was becoming more famous than ever, because he, along with Ludwig Wittgenstein and G.E. Moore, were considered the founders of analytic philosophy, which had taken root in the U.K. and U.S. and had an offshoot in Austria, known as the Vienna Circle, led by Moritz Schlick. Russell had practically stopped reading philosophical works and devoted most of his time to political articles and lectures. He thought that taking a university position would be problematic, since he was divorced, and that in any case he could make more money on popular topics.

In 1922, shortly after John's birth, he bought a house near the ocean in Cornwall to live for part of the year. When he wasn't working, he spent much of his time with John and tried to employ some quack behavioral techniques with the goal of making John self-confident and independent when he grew up. In those days, behaviorism was popular, and its followers apparently believed in the erroneous "blank slate" theory of psychological development. So far, John is scared to go into the ocean and is afraid of shadows.

Later that year he had his last friendly meeting with Wittgenstein in Innsbruck. By then, the Tractatus had been published, and the two still disagreed. On the one hand, Russell was a Platonist who wanted to derive all of mathematics from logic, while, on the other hand, Wittgenstein thought that all logic boiled down to tautologies and said nothing about the world. At this point they also had different worldviews. Russell had practically given up on philosophy and thought that it could be replaced by the empirical sciences; he also considered world issues, such as politics, important, though he tended to tire of them easily.  Wittgenstein was obsessed with personal morality and self-improvement. Russell came away from this meeting lumping Wittgenstein in with D.H. Lawrence as a "mystic," though that term is hardly an appropriate description of either. Lawrence was a poet, novelist, painter and utopian thinker, whereas Wittgenstein, I have decided, was autistic. 

Although I don't always seek outside sources to corroborate or dispute statements made in a biography or autobiography that I've read, I came across some recent comments describing Wittgenstein as autistic, and this provided an "Aha!" moment for me. While Monk seems to be doing a good job discussing the oddities of Russell's personality, I think that he has completely missed a key opportunity to unravel the psychodynamics of Wittgenstein. This isn't entirely Monk's fault, because, even though autism had a clinical description by 1980, is was not widely discussed before the 2000's, a decade after he had written Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius. Wittgenstein clearly had the symptoms of Autism Spectrum Disorder. He engaged in highly repetitive behavior, such as only eating certain foods. His confused sexuality can also be a symptom of autism. One of the hallmarks of autism is an obsession with rules, which would explain how Wittgenstein became interested in logic in the first place. The giveaway for me, though, is his apparent inability to fathom how other people think. As I remarked earlier, it seemed unusual that he produced very little written work, and when he did he usually depended on help from other people. This was not because his native language was German and he lived in England: the books for which he is known contain both German and English texts. I think that, like some autistic people, he found it extremely difficult to understand how other people thought, and, for him, writing as if he were like other people was challenging. Thus, he always preferred to go over his ideas informally with others who could insert the correct phraseology, because he didn't know whether what he wrote would be intelligible to people. In my opinion, Monk has used the word "genius" as a broad cover for the fact that there is something about Wittgenstein that he doesn't understand. I'm not going to dwell on this, since I'm currently reading about Russell, not Wittgenstein, but I think it would be possible to write a more insightful biography of Wittgenstein than the one Monk wrote. For someone like me, who doesn't take academic philosophy seriously at this point, nothing is lost by engaging in this kind of demythologizing. I think that in their early days Russell and Wittgenstein were working on the fringes of mathematics, a field that neither needed nor wanted their help. As I said, linking academic philosophy to mathematics was, sociologically speaking, a way to aggrandize philosophy at the time.

In 1924, after his second child, Kate, was born, Russell went on a two-month lecture tour of the U.S. This was arranged by an agent who took a large cut, and the entire purpose was for Russell to make as much money as possible. At the age of fifty-one, he had run through his inheritance, did not have an academic position and, with a family to support, he needed the money. He considered the trip grueling and complained bitterly about it in his letters to Dora. One of the comments that I found interesting was this:

I like the academic audiences best. I always get on with the students. The open forums are rather admirable; they always have very lively questions & discussions afterwards, & they are gradually teaching Yanks to keep their tempers when they hear opinions they don't agree with. But the women's clubs are utterly horrible. I doubt if the human race produces anything more repulsive than the American rich woman of middle age, very fat, very ugly, very expensively dressed, telling you that the pearls that she is wearing are imitation, the real ones being at the Bank on account of recent robberies, boasting that her most intimate friend married a Serbian prince, & at intervals maintaining that pure American womanhood does wonders for morals. If I ever come again, I shall tell Feakins to charge the women's clubs extra.

So, for all his character flaws, Russell can still be quite entertaining.

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