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 After a court case, for which he did not have to appear, the offer was rescinded.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.

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