Thursday, March 25, 2021

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

 As the 1960's progressed, Russell became increasingly dependent on Ralph Schoenman. He founded the Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation, which, among other things, sought to draw attention to war crimes. Schoenman managed most of the day-to-day operations and traveled frequently while Russell remained at home. After the Cuban Missile Crisis, the focus shifted to the Vietnam War. Although Russell remained relatively lucid up to the time of his death in 1970, his ideas during this period were often inconsistent and interspersed with Schoenman's ideas. While Russell's rhetoric was sometimes over-the-top, equating Lyndon Johnson with Hitler, Schoenman's rhetoric became explicitly Guevarist, which directly contradicted Russell's focus on peace. For a time, Schoenman seemed to emulate Ché Guevara, hopping around countries and inciting violent revolutions. Eventually, Russell was forced to disassociate himself completely from Schoenman.

Russell's family life remained problematic right up to the end. He did finally see his son, Conrad, who grew up to become a successful historian. He remained estranged from his son, John, who continued living with Dora after Harriet and Roddy had grown up and moved out, and he tried unsuccessfully to block John from seeing his children, Anne, Sarah and Lucy. Though Lucy had been a promising student in her early teens, she became a poor student and was sexually promiscuous later on. She was unable to gain admission to Oxford or Cambridge, and for a period had a Moroccan boyfriend who was subsequently deported. She traveled to Kathmandu and studied Buddhism. Both Lucy and Sarah were diagnosed with schizophrenia. The final tragedy occurred after Russell's death, when, in 1975, Lucy, at the age of twenty-six, poured kerosene on herself in a cemetery in Cornwall, ignited it and burned to death.  

My primary reaction to this biography is that I find it extremely depressing. However, there is a lot to think about, and the main categories that interest me concern what intellectual contributions Russell made, the nature of his relationships with other people, and the extent to which schizophrenia influenced his life. These three categories seem intertwined, and I find it difficult to unravel them. Ray Monk has provided a lot of information, but he wisely leaves the ultimate assessment to the reader.

Though I am not an expert on mathematical logic, my sense is that Russell was a failure as a thinker in that realm. Generally, he wanted to prove that mathematics could be derived from formal logic. My understanding is that this idea was disproven conclusively by Kurt Gödel, and, despite Monk being fuzzy on this point, I think that Russell realized that his main mathematical ideas were incorrect. I think that Russell intentionally moved from mathematics and philosophy to popular writing because he lacked the skills to be a major thinker. In my opinion, that was a good idea, because he was completely outclassed by Gödel and others. My sense is that, although Russell had a high IQ and was verbally fluent in an impressive manner, he was not really an original thinker. He reminds me of a book by Robert Sternberg that I read long ago, called The Triarchic Mind. That book isn't completely supported by research, but I think that it contains an important insight into what it means to be a good student. Sternberg discusses how students with high IQ's often sail through their undergraduate years with excellent academic records but, when they arrive in graduate school, they sometimes struggle, because there is a shift in emphasis from analytical skills to creative skills. The impression I have of Russell is that, after obtaining his degree at Cambridge, he found it difficult to work autonomously and came to rely heavily on Whitehead and, later, Wittgenstein for new ideas. He drifted into popular writing and public causes because they didn't require much creativity.

This lack of creativity also affected his personal relationships. I found it bizarre that Russell paid attention to Wittgenstein under the circumstances that they met, because Wittgenstein perfectly fit the description of a crank. Most academics would have ignored someone like that – Gottlob Frege did – but Russell must have been desperate for help. Eventually, the relationship broke down when Wittgenstein began to criticize Russell. Looking at this psychologically, Wittgenstein was seeking an intellectual niche in which he might excel, and Russell encouraged him, though, in my opinion, Wittgenstein ultimately contributed nothing of lasting value to philosophy. Russell completely cleared the way for him in academia by selling him as a genius, when, all things considered, Wittgenstein might have done better in a different field.

Wittgenstein is a good window for looking into how Russell misunderstood people. As mentioned earlier, he showed the symptoms of autism, and, though that wasn't a known psychiatric condition at the time, many recognized his odd behavior. Russell tended to think that people thought the way he did even when they didn't, and there are examples throughout the biography: Wittgenstein, D.H. Lawrence, Ottoline Morrell (whom he tried to teach mathematical logic), Joseph Conrad and Ralph Schoenman. Something similar occurred with his wives, and what is odd is that he broke completely with them when the relationships ended. Though that may partly have had to do with his pride and ego, I suspect that even when he thought things were going well with the women there were schisms that he was unable to see. It is possible that his schizophrenic tendencies caused him to react sharply once the bubble burst on what had been an artificial construct in his mind. Why did he consistently refuse to interact with his ex-wives? In every case, there is no evidence that the wives were in breach of any understanding that they had with him. Russell's extreme reaction must indicate some sort of psychological self-protection.

One example in which Russell seemed to misunderstand human nature, with hints of schizophrenia, occurred in his relationship with Dora after their divorce. When they were married, they were both completely idealistic about living without following oppressive social norms. Apparently neither of them had the common sense to recognize that if Dora had children with another man this could lead to dire consequences in their relationship. In fact, that is exactly what happened. Russell, as a nominal progressive, was initially happy to accept Griffin Barry's children as his own. Later, when he realized that they would be entitled to the aristocratic privileges associated with his name, he did a complete reversal and began to communicate with Dora only through his lawyer. The situation developed into absurdity when their son, John, proved to be seriously schizophrenic. Because John reflected badly on Russell, he completely abandoned him, along with Dora. Although this is a pretty murky area, I think that a case could be made that Russell experienced a significant cognitive dysfunction in his interpersonal relationships, and that schizophrenia was a likely culprit. Given Russell's behavior, one might simply conclude that he was selfish, but it seems probable that psychiatric conditions beyond his control affected him. Although he wrote an autobiography (which was partly intended to finance the Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation), I don't think that it contains any explanation of why he treated some of his closest family members as badly as he did.

Regarding Russell's public life, I think that it is best described as trivial. As he grew older, he increasingly chose to emulate his grandfather, Lord John Russell, who was in fact one of the most significant British politicians of the nineteenth century. Russell never became a leader by any definition, and most of his political ideas were disorganized clichés – even his friend, Beatrice Webb, thought so. I found it embarrassing to read about his years with Ralph Schoenman. The main lasting influence from that period in his life, I think, is the enabling of other unproductive thinkers to follow his model as a public intellectual. The first example who comes to mind is Noam Chomsky. Like Russell, Chomsky appeals to younger generations, usually college students, who want to change the world for the better. But what you find in both Russell and Chomsky is a mishmash of uninformed and obsolete ideas that provide no outline for how a better society might be structured and what it might look like. This becomes obvious if you examine traditional Marxist rhetoric in terms of actual political conditions in recent years. According to the standard radical playbook, the proletariat must rise to overcome the bourgeoisie. However, if you look closely at what has happened lately, the populist groups in the U.S. and Europe, which may once have been labeled as the proletariat, seem mainly interested in becoming more bourgeois, i.e., although their economic situations aren't dire, they want higher incomes, larger houses, expensive cars, etc. It seems to me that neither Russell nor Chomsky had much of a sense of human nature. By painting various governments and people as evil, they achieve nothing more than arousing gullible youth.

On a more positive note – one less emphasized by Monk – Russell also advocated reason and science. This is a model that has been followed by Richard Dawkins and others in recent years. For most intelligent people, it is obvious that God, in the traditional Christian sense, does not exist. Thus, the non-existence of God is sort of a low-hanging fruit for people like Russell and Dawkins to expound upon. Perhaps Dawkins and Chomsky both follow Russell's model in the sense that they can use their writing skills to write popular books and receive a modicum of fame without actually producing any original or useful ideas.

I found it grueling to work though this very long biography, but in the end it was rewarding. Russell's mind was an unpleasant place to inhabit, though understanding it can produce insights. Whether all readers would benefit equally remains to be seen – I think not.

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