Thursday, February 25, 2021

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

According to Monk, there is no record of what Russell spoke about or how people reacted to the 1940 William James Lectures. John and Kate remained in California until 1941 and grew to enjoy their independence. When they moved to Pennsylvania to live with Russell, Peter and Conrad, they became despondent. Then, probably with help from Russell in John's case, John and Kate transferred to Harvard and Radcliffe, respectively, in the fall. Russell's job at the Barnes Foundation initially went well, and he continued to take other jobs on the side. However, Peter became increasingly restless and troublesome. In 1941 she was thirty-one years old to Russell's sixty-nine years, and, compared to Russell's earlier wives, she was more emotionally demanding. Russell merely attempted to humor her, but that didn't work. It was a rather ironic situation for Russell to be working at the Barnes Foundation, because the purpose of the Foundation was to enrich the lives of underprivileged people by exposing them to the arts. Barnes had acquired one of the best collections of Impressionist paintings in the world (which I would like to see at some point). In contrast, Russell was a closet elitist who usually hid his disdain for ordinary people. Perhaps intentionally to stir up trouble, Peter attended events at the Foundation and routinely offended the staff by being snobby and disruptive. This became so significant that Barnes fired Russell in 1942. However, the situation worked out well for Russell, because he successfully sued for breach of contract and was awarded $20,000, which covered his expenses for some time.

Russell remained in the U.S. until 1944, when he was offered a position at Trinity College, Cambridge. In 1943, before he got the position and sailed back, he spent time in Princeton, New Jersey, where he met Albert Einstein, Kurt Gödel and Wolfgang Pauli. It does not appear that Russell enjoyed their company. Knowing Russell well by now, I think that he was probably hobnobbing with people at the Institute for Advanced Study in order to obtain a position there. The main complaint I have about Ray Monk's narration is that he doesn't sufficiently emphasize the importance of Gödel's work in relation to Russell's work. This may be in part because, by 1943, Russell's interest in mathematical logic had evaporated, but the fact remains that Gödel's incompleteness theorem of 1931conclusively refuted the central argument of Principia Mathematica by proving that it is impossible to use the axiomatic method to construct a mathematical theory that entails all of the truths in any particular branch of mathematics. Gödel was one of the preeminent mathematicians of the twentieth century and the final word on mathematical logic, but both Monk and Russell act almost as if he were just some guy who worked at the Institute for Advanced Study. It is conceivable that Russell never read any of Gödel's work – indicating to me that Russell's intellectual curiosity was rather limited, and that he was primarily motivated by the desire for fame. In major thinkers such as Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein – or Kurt Gödel – there is a doggedness that one does not see in Russell, and Russell's drift from serious academic work to popular writing and lecturing probably reveals his intellectual limitations. The most productive thinkers often dwell on the same questions for many years, a process which probably leads to greater insights than those produced by more superficial thinkers.

Because of the war situation, John chose an accelerated graduation program at Harvard and finished in 1943. He returned to England, joined the Royal Navy and trained in Japanese language translation in London before being sent to Washington, D.C. While living in Washington, he ran into Griffin Barry, the father of his half-siblings by Dora, and they occupied the same apartment for a time. This probably facilitated John's reckoning with his homosexuality, because he apparently confided in Barry, who was bisexual. John had taken an interest in Barry's children, Harriet and Roddy, while living in London. In 1945, John led a futile letter campaign to resolve family issues so that Harriet and Roddy wouldn't have to live through discordant childhoods similar to those that he and Kate had experienced.

Russell had been working on A History of Western Philosophy with help from Peter while still living in the U.S., and it was published in 1945 in the U.S. and 1946 in the U.K. The book was popular and increased his renown. He also became a BBC broadcaster. Nevertheless, at Trinity College, his estrangement from academic philosophers continued. He attempted to write essays which would appeal to both the public and academics, but the academics generally had lukewarm or negative responses. Wittgenstein was then at Trinity College and had many followers in ordinary language philosophy, a subject in which Russell took no interest. I think that philosophy had become a faddish academic subject by then, and it was hard to take seriously, even for Russell. To this day, philosophers often cannibalize other subjects without saying anything memorable to people other than academic philosophers.

In 1946, Peter made a serious suicide attempt, for which her stomach had to be pumped, and Russell subsequently shipped her off to live in a house in North Wales while he remained in Cambridge. Though their relationship hadn't completely collapsed yet, Russell took the opportunity to meet Colette O'Niel, his old girlfriend, whom he hadn't seen in years. There is a good example of Russell's dishonesty to be found here: at the time, he wrote to Colette, "Every moment of my visit to you was a joy," yet, in about 1949, he wrote to Peter saying, according to Monk, "that Colette was by this time middle-aged, very fat, nearly stone deaf and without any traces of her former beauty." Russell also made overtures to the wife of a Cambridge academic and unsuccessfully tried once again to interest Gamel Brenan, the writer. The unraveling of his marriage to Peter is ongoing.

I am slowly creeping toward the end of the book, but probably won't finish for another month.

Thursday, February 18, 2021

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

In 1937, Russell's financial situation became precarious. Peter had become pregnant the previous year, and his second son, Conrad, was born in April. He wanted time for serious academic work, but without lecturing in the U.S. or writing popular books, he had insufficient income. Besides his family expenses, he was required to make payments to both Dora and his brother's widow. For this reason, Telegraph House was sold, the family moved temporarily to Oxford, and Russell searched for an academic position. Because he had been outside academia for several years, he could not find an academic post in England. Therefore, he looked to the U.S. for whatever jobs there might be. He contacted the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton but was turned down.  He did manage to receive a one-year contract as Visiting Professor at the University of Chicago for 1938-1939. Then, in April, 1938, Ottoline Morrell, one of his oldest friends, died. 

He, Peter and Conrad traveled to Chicago in September, 1938 and lived near the campus. Russell enjoyed the intellectual environment at the University and had opportunities to discuss philosophical issues with Rudolf Carnap, the German philosopher, who was there at the time. However, in the spring, his contract was not renewed, and he once again sought employment. He was offered a three-year position at U.C.L.A. and moved to California in 1939 with Peter and Conrad. Before his contract period began, he squeezed in a short lecture tour. After negotiating with Dora, John and Kate joined them. At the time, Dora was having trouble keeping the Beacon Hill School in operation, because, with World War II looming, wealthy Americans didn't want to send their children to school in Europe. Russell did not find U.C.L.A. agreeable and was distracted by the war. Therefore, he chose to break his contract with U.C.L.A. and seek employment elsewhere. Peter, apparently, had another affair and greatly disliked John; she briefly considered moving out. Russell was offered the William James Lectures at Harvard for 1940. He also found a job teaching at C.C.N.Y. for 1941-1942. The C.C.N.Y. job turned into a major fiasco, because some people who had read his popular books considered him immoral and objected to his appointment. After a court case, for which he did not have to appear, the offer was rescinded.

At this point, Russell heard from Dr. Albert C. Barnes, of the Barnes Foundation, and, quite unusually, ended up receiving an offer to teach there. This was quite a strange situation, since the school was an art school and Russell didn't know anything about art. Barnes was an eccentric but had complete control over the Foundation, and he agreed to let Russell deliver one lecture per week on philosophy, with very high wages. As far as I've read, Russell, Peter and Conrad moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts in the fall of 1940 for the William James Lectures, and then, in January, 1941, to the Philadelphia suburbs, near the Barnes Foundation, with John and Kate staying in California and attending U.C.L.A., which neither of them liked. I don't think that the Barnes Foundation job is going to end well – we'll see. 

As you can tell, Russell's life at this stage, at the age of sixty-eight, was quite a frenzy. I am only able to fit in the bare outlines of what transpired. Monk devotes considerable space to the discussion of Russell's philosophical ideas at the time and evaluates how well they agreed with those of his philosophical contemporaries. According to Monk, Russell argued that experiences are internal ones that occur in the brain and are not the same as external events, whereas other philosophers considered external events real. I still think that this is all a lot of nonsense and am not spending much time thinking about it. Russell seems to have been a die-hard Platonist who wanted to discover objective truths by using a precise language that corresponded exactly with reality. What I have found is that philosophers rarely agree on anything, and that their "arguments" can safely be construed as exotic ephemera. My current view is that all language, including logic and mathematics, is the result of an evolutionary process that allowed humans to exchange knowledge, along with other cultural functions. There is nothing special about language outside a human context. This is why AI is already able to accurately predict phenomena without resorting to the use of symbolic notation. Contrary to what Russell and Wittgenstein thought in their early years, language has no connection with eternal truths. I think that the authoritative pronouncements made by philosophers in these areas are slightly ludicrous. Wittgenstein, at least, in his later thinking, seems to have taken language off the pedestal that he had placed it on earlier – though one dare not paraphrase a philosopher! For me, the main interest of this biography is Russell's life, since I don't consider him to have been an important thinker. In some ways he seems to have been a prototype for later public intellectuals – who rarely offered useful ideas. The possibility remains that in the future both philosophers and mathematicians will be unemployable.

Friday, February 12, 2021

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

Russell's older brother, Frank, died in 1931, making Bertrand the 3rd Earl Russell and a member of the House of Lords. Monk doesn't say much about Frank's life, but it was at least as chaotic as Bertrand's. He was married three times, and his first marriage lasted only three months. That divorce was ugly and took ten years to resolve. Frank established residence in the U.S., got a divorce in Reno, and married another woman there in 1910. However, the divorce was not recognized in the U.K., and in 1911 Frank was arrested and convicted in the House of Lords for bigamy. Frank's first wife had accused him of sodomy, echoing the suspicions of homosexuality from his university years. However, Frank's life was a little simpler than Bertrand's, because he had no children. I think that Monk could have used Frank's history to explore Bertrand's psychodynamics, but chose not to. Given the mountains of documents that Monk had to sort through already, I don't blame him.

Prior to Russell's divorce from Dora, Dora moved the Beacon Hill School out of Telegraph House, and over the next few years she moved it to several different locations due to financial difficulties. Under agreement with Russell, John and Kate no longer attended the school, and they were transferred to the Dartington School, a snobby, upper-class school. Dora never stopped supporting ordinary workers, and when she showed up at the Dartington School to visit John and Kate, Kate was embarrassed by her shabby clothing. During this period, Dora also befriended a slightly seedy man named Pat Grace, who had been a friend of Paul Gillard. Russell and Peter moved into Telegraph House, and Peter exhausted herself converting it from a school into a comfortable family dwelling. Peter was not always happy with Russell's company and had an affair with Richard Llewelyn Davies, the son of Russell's lawyer. This put Russell on edge, but eventually Peter married Russell in January, 1936. Peter had a background in history and assisted Russell as a researcher and a secretary. One of their first projects was The Amberley Papers, which were drawn from his parents' letters and diaries. By all accounts, the two-volume set is boring to read, since the Amberleys lived in a calm part of the Victorian period, led uneventful, pampered lives and had no impact on their contemporaries.

Peter had difficulty adjusting to Russell's friends, who were about forty years older than she was and were starting to die off by the late 1930's. Bloomsbury-style conversations strained her, because they required exceptional conversational skills, which she did not possess. Furthermore, Peter came from a humbler background than most of them. Even Dora, who was upper-middle-class, had been better prepared. Dora had also done very well at Oxford, whereas Peter had dropped out.

Russell and Peter made some new friends, Gerald and Gamel Brenan. Gerald was a British writer with Bloomsbury connections and had a house in Churriana, Spain, near Málaga, where they spent part of the year. Russell and Peter went on a holiday there shortly after their marriage. Although they remained on friendly terms with the Brenans, the Brenans noticed Russell's faults, and his spellbinding ability as a conversationalist didn't exonerate him. Besides being self-centered, he could be vicious when he disagreed with someone or something, and he lacked empathy. Thus, when Russell became attracted to Gamel, an American writer, and followed his usual pattern of seduction, she was alert to the risks and didn't succumb.

Monk sporadically comments on Russell's writings from different time periods. He points out inconsistencies in Russell's ideas even in the same book. Sometimes the writing is just plain sloppy. By his sixties, Russell regretted not having pursued a different field, such as physics or biochemistry. People like Albert Einstein got far more attention than he did, and he seemed to recognize that philosophy was not a terribly important subject as far as most people were concerned. I think that it was practically a dead subject when he entered it, and that his attempt to resuscitate it with mathematical logic was a naïve idea that failed. In my view, the so-called analytic philosophy that Russell helped originate evolved into an academic dead end even during his lifetime. Although Charles Darwin wasn't much of a philosopher, his ideas opened the only sensible way to think about humans: as animals. For me, the terminology now used by analytic philosophers is just a fancy, distracting way of saying nothing and is unintelligible outside a specialized academic setting. The sciences, on the other hand, continue to provide useful insights, and Russell probably sensed that. Nevertheless, I don't think that Russell was cut out to be a scientist, because he tended to inject his opinions into everything and did not typically have what would be considered an empirical approach. He was far too restless to carefully accrue knowledge over a long period of time.

Friday, February 5, 2021

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

I've reached the point at which Russell's credibility as a thinker and a decent person becomes trying, to put it mildly. In 1929, Russell went on another fund-raising lecture tour of the U.S. Since the Beacon Hill School wasn't sufficiently profitable, Russell's income from the U.S. had become crucial for his financial survival. He continued to churn out popular writing of increasingly lower quality and even became a syndicated columnist in the U.S. This was the easiest possible work for him, because he could churn it out with little or no effort. By 1929, Russell detested his American lectures and on his tours had begun to have one-night stands with enthusiastic women from the audiences. He dutifully reported them to Dora, and she took them lightly. However, while he was away she became pregnant by Griffin Barry, and that was the beginning of the end of her marriage to Russell.  There were other complications associated with Barry. Apparently he was bisexual, and he had had a relationship with an Englishman named Paul Gillard, who was homosexual. Gillard's background is largely unknown, but he apparently had connections with communists, and he lived under the pretense of having an adventurous secret life, though he probably didn't. Dora was extremely attracted to Gillard, whereas Russell, when he met him, couldn't stand him. Dora's baby, Harriet, was born in July, 1930, and this began to put a strain on her relationship with Russell.

Dora hired Patricia Spence, who went by the name "Peter," as a governess for John and Kate. Peter was twenty years old and an Oxford undergraduate, and soon Russell, who turned fifty-eight in 1930, began an affair with her. In 1931, Peter became pregnant, presumably by Russell, and either had an abortion or a miscarriage in July. She dropped out of Oxford and did not complete her degree. Dora became pregnant again by Barry at the same time as Peter, and their second child, Roderick, was born in 1932. During this period, the Russells usually spent their summers at their house in Cornwall and the rest of the year at the Beacon Hill School. At various times, Dora, Russell, Peter, Barry and Gillard could be found at the school, along with Dora's four children. However, Barry eventually left for the U.S. looking for literary work.

As of 1932, Dora and Russell's marriage started to collapse. Russell had lost interest in Dora several years earlier but had played along with her to humor her, and she hadn't noticed his insincerity. They had discussions about how to organize their lives, but Russell became extremely concerned about the potential passing of his aristocratic credentials to Barry's children. With Barry away, Dora imagined herself to be in love with Paul Gillard, but Gillard died under mysterious circumstances in 1933. By then, Russell was actively pursuing a divorce from Dora that would leave him with rights to see John and Kate in the aftermath. The divorce became extremely acrimonious, with Russell and his lawyer seeking dirt on Dora in case they needed it. That wasn't difficult, since there were disgruntled employees at the Beacon Hill School, and John and Kate were unhappy. Kate preferred Peter to Dora. Peter was quite beautiful and had a lively, playful personality. Because of protracted negotiations, the marriage was not dissolved until July, 1935, with John and Kate, then aged thirteen and eleven, becoming the wards of trustees, and neither Russell nor Dora had custody.

Ray Monk comments on the underlying psychology of Russell and Dora, but I don't think that he takes his analysis far enough. In the case of Dora, she comes across as an extremely naïve progressive who thought that she could have an open marriage, support communism and speak her mind without any negative repercussions. She must not have been very perceptive, or she would have noticed that Russell didn't particularly share her beliefs and was just leading her on in order to achieve his objectives. His primary goal in the relationship was to have children, and in fact Dora had not been his first choice for the mother. Ottoline Morrell didn't want more children and Colette O'Niel didn't want to interrupt her acting career for children. Dora was Russell's third choice, and several of his older friends disliked her. The way Monk describes her, Dora seems to have been unaware of the precariousness of her situation. By the time Dora had given birth to John and Kate, Russell was already becoming tired of her, and their sexual relationship ended. Dora reminds me of the American feminist progressives of the 1970's who felt empowered at the time but actually just alienated men and for the most part didn't even find good jobs or have happier lives than their mothers. Dora had an ideological frame of mind, but lacked the ability to modify her ideas on the basis of real-world experience.

Russell himself is far more annoying than Dora, because he was disingenuous and manipulative. He could talk up a storm convincing women to have sex with him, but he quickly lost interest in them and eventually displayed bald indifference toward them. Besides being a shameless sexist, he was also an unapologetic elitist. However, it seems to me that Russell's most significant failings were in his actual lack of intellectual achievement. His early works, which had provided the basis for his academic reputation, were, to my understanding, incorrect. For the rest of his life he churned out what can reasonably be described as journalism. His popular philosophical writing is generally considered unsuitable for academic use. I also find that his conception of psychology was primitive by today's standards. There were several occasions in which he instantly decided that someone he met was just like him, which later proved not to be the case. This may have occurred in his relationship with Joseph Conrad, but Conrad conveniently died in 1924, before Russell could be disabused. After his grandmother, Lady Russell, warned him in no uncertain terms that if he had children they would be mentally ill, rather than heed her words, which were firmly based on her experience of raising mentally-ill children, he seemed to delude himself by thinking that he was fine but had simply been raised badly. I think that part of his motivation to have children was to prove that if they were raised properly they would turn out to be well-adjusted adults and disprove Lady Russell's argument. He dabbled superficially in behaviorism and Freudian theory and pretended to be involved with his children's upbringing, but they do not seem to have been close to him, and there is no evidence that they benefited from either his or Dora's parenting. By 1935, his theory was blowing up in his face, with both John and Kate exhibiting psychiatric disorders which may actually have been exacerbated by their parents.

On these fronts, conditions in Russell's personal life only continue to deteriorate. In the next chapter, he commences his third bad marriage, with Peter, and I'm already depressed thinking about it.