Bertrand Russell: Epistolary Philosopher.

“I stayed in a really old hotel last night. They sent me a wake up letter” Steven Wright

I’ve been rereading Bertrand Russell’s Autobiography. It’s been twenty years since I last looked at my copy and the experience is quite discomfiting. I have to record that what I’ve read so far has revealed a man who is shallow, facile and shockingly self-absorbed…serves me right for reading the marginalia. Is there a workable notion of personal identity/continuity that would enable me to escape the charge that it wasn’t really me who wrote them? A loose psychological connectedness view perhaps? If so, then count me in.

I was motivated to look at the book again in part because of a recent conversation with a philosophical friend who remarked that Russell’s attempt to avoid the paradoxes of self-reference, his theory of types, is (and I think I quote her accurately) “shockingly ad hoc“. I must admit that I’ve long thought the same, that the attempt to eliminate the problems of self-reference by reference to the “direct introspection” of logical functions involved the identification of one ambiguity (in ordinary language) and its replacement with another, albeit another of a more respectable logical countenance. What I was hoping to find in the Autobiography was some description of his intellectual development on this specific point. Disappointingly, there is very little there. There is also not much light shed on Ayer’s point that Russell’s post-Principia philosophical techniques and subject matter are oddly discontinuous with the Russell of 1895-1910. Russell’s own claim that the energy invested in writing Principia Mathematica  afterwards left him unable to work at that intellectual altitude does not explain this completely.

Plenty of other things do stand out, however. For one thing the paperbook version is 800 pages long. It is impressive that someone who lived the life that Russell did, for the length of time that he did, could condense it all in so few words. The cast list is also impressive: were a Russell dinner party circa 1905 to have been interrupted by an unwelcome outbreak of botulism then it’s no exaggeration to suggest that the intellectual landscape of the 20th Century would have been vastly different (and not, in all ways, better). Keynes would have passed the port to Sydney Webb who would have passed it to Beatrice (who would have declined and then confiscated the bottle in the best interests of all the other guests).

But the most remarkable feature of the Autobiography to my mind is the revelation of the  sheer volume of correspondence Russell got through, a fraction of which is included in the form of appendices to the main chapters. Disappointingly few of these include those authored by the more famous protagonists in the development of mathematical logic. There is nothing from Peano (whom Russell met in Paris in 1900) and it seems that Whitehead was an indolent correspondent. Someone once remarked that whereas Russell, the grandson of a liberal Prime Minister, was undoubtedly an aristocrat he most certainly was not a gentleman. But I think these appendices show that the remark is unfair. It seems he corresponded with anyone, on almost equal terms, and there are some gems here: from Gilbert Murray’s spoof review of Russell’s The Problems of Philosophyto the lady who wrote to him to express her new found belief in solipsism and her hope that “everyone would become one”. You can’t help but suspect that had he succumbed to the raging contagion of text messaging then the logicist project might have died of natural causes without the intervention of Godel. “Alfred sorry was L8 2 seminar just spotted prob wiv class of classes lol c u l8er. B”.

One shudders to think…..

Leave a comment ?


  1. Anyone who thinks that the theory of types is “shockingly ad hoc” is shockingly misinformed. Unfortunately, mythology spread by Quine, Church, Geach and others who misunderstood it–about the theory of types prevails over what it actually was.

    For example, Russell did not, ever, believe in metaphysical types of things. Indeed, the development of the theory of types was designed to preserve the notion that every genuine entity is an individual.

    Consider reading about its development in Landini’s book _Russell’s Hidden Substitutional Theory_, in Graham Stevens’s _The Russellian Origins of Analytic Philosophy_, or in some of my papers, which you’ll find on my website, linked above.

  2. Thanks. I have the Stevens book, I’ll check out your papers. Do you cover Wittgenstein’s objections?

  3. ….ah right I think I remember reading the Analysis (05) paper on Frege/Cantor.

    Thanks for the heads up.

  4. The “Putting Form Before Function” paper addresses Wittgenstein somewhat. But you may be surprised by what I say.

  5. I like surprises. I’ll check it out now. Thanks.

  6. “….an all too common blunder”.

    Nice to be in such esteemed company.

  7. Andy, I’m assuming you’re talking about his plain-vanilla autobiography in the above post. I would take a look at Russell’s intellectual autobiography, “My Philosophical Development”. Chapter 7 is useful as a discussion of his theory of types, and Chapter 10 is about the influence of Wittgenstein.

    Although Russell insisted that some type theory or other was indispensable, he also admits that his attempts to convince other logicians were unsuccessful. In particular, he admits that he has not persuaded others that his theory of types is ‘logical common sense’ (i.e., that it’s what logicians should have expected all along).

    I admit no deftness at logic, and hence have absolutely zero intellectual authority on this issue. However, I must also say that I’ve always thought that Russell’s convictions related to this subject are conceptually compelling. Russell writes, with respect to all the paradoxes: “there is a kind of reflexive self-reference which is to be condemned on the same ground: viz. that it includes, as a member of a totality, something referring to that totality which can only have a definite meaning if the totality is already fixed.” Or, as he says on the same page: “The whole process is like trying to jump on the shadow of your head.” That analogy strikes me as an elegant way of expressing his point (whether or not one ultimately agrees with it).

  8. Thanks Benjamin, useful post as ever. I’ll check out MPD again although I’ve a suspicion that it’s part of the archive that fell victim to divorce (I got custody of the Harold Robbins).

    I don’t think by ad hoc she was implying a lack of rigour or philosophical respectability. Merely that he perhaps offered a solution to the paradoxes that his heart might not have been fully engaged with (I’ve thought similar of Kant’s transcendental deduction I guess). I’m looking through Kevin’s archive (as above) with a view to thinking this through a little more.

    I was first taught Russell as a response to Husserl’s more epistemic account of logic and Russell’s clarity is only illuminated by that contrast. I still think The Principles of Mathematics makes a good claim to be the finest work -not just philosophical work -of the twentieth century.

  9. If that’s what is meant my ad hoc, then there’s a sense in which I agree. Russell was I think thoroughly committed to *some* version of the theory of types being correct, but there are many more specific forms it could take, and indeed, did take, even in Russell’s published writings. (Far more in the unpublished ones!) Certainly he was not fully committed to the ramified theory of Principia Mathematica, and the axiom of reducibility especially. This comes out in the second edition introduction and elsewhere. The body of PM is I think intentionally written in a way such that most of the proofs could remain intact even if the underlying type theory was altered.

    But you’ve indirectly put your finger on a very palpable and at its time nearly unique aspect of Russell’s approach to philosophy, which was that he felt there to be nothing wrong with publishing the current direction of your thought, being honest about what you see as the difficulties of your own position, before you’ve ironed out all the wrinkled. This is something he and Wittgenstein argued about; Russell published Wittgenstein to publish even before he had completely made up his mind, and Wittgenstein was horrified with the idea. We then begin to see why Russell is so often charged with changes of mind.

    Russell later said that he thought the tendency only to publish once someone had fully resolved all of one’s misgivings about a view was a counterproductive byproduct of philosophy’s early association with theology, where infallibility was supposed to be possible. Frankly I think one of the best aspects of Russell’s influence on subsequent philosophy is there is I think now more honesty, more willingness to admit possible mistakes, and less insistence on grand unified systems which simultaneously tackle all philosophical problems. Philosophy has had enough of that.

    Incidentally, there is copious correspondence between Whitehead and Russell (well half of it anyway since Whitehead didn’t save Russell’s letters), Peano and Russell, Frege and Russell, etc., located at the Russell archives at McMaster. Russell just didn’t include these in the Autobiography, no doubt targetting a diferent audience. Actually the most helpful correspondence in understanding the development of Russell’s philosophy logic is the correspondence with Jourdain. Grattan-Guinness has a book on the correspondence, _Dear Russell, Dear Jourdain_, which is worth checking out.

  10. Andy, If I can drag you away for just a second, it shouldn’t take any longer, why the parenthetical remark
    “(and not, in all ways, better)?” If one killed off a number of formidable intellects at one meal one would expect history to have suffered afterward by it. Did you mean “worse” or am I terribly lost.

  11. Ralph, it was a frivolous aside although I’d nevertheless offer the personal view that were the biography of the Webbs to have been curtailed circa 1915 we might have got by quite nicely without them….as a more general point, there are plenty of intellectually formidable people whose lives have subtracted from the sum of human happiness are there not? I’m resisting the temptation to mention Heide….no I’ve said enough :-)

    @Kevin….many thanks for taking the time with that post and I’ll certainly check out the Grattan-Guinness work.

  12. Andy, the point is trivial compared to the topic of discussion, but I hope you’ll continue to humor me. Happily I can say I knew you were being frivolous, and I understand that some of the people at the dinner might have been, for the rest of us, better off dead. But when one says we have the cream of the crop dining here and a number of them died, we might say the world’s future has been changed. It is natural to assume we mean in all ways for the worse. Now if there are some no-gooders in the crop, we would say, well, it wasn’t in all ways bad, or and not in all ways worse. Certainly, British English and American English can’t be that different.

  13. Ralph- not in the least trivial. Not in a thread about a philosopher who managed to do quite a bit with the word “the”. The best that can be said about the remark is that I was practising Kant’s “transformation of a strange expectation into nothing” ie I was trying to be funny. Unfortunately it was about as funny as one of Kant’s “jokes”: ie not at all.

    I take your point though.

  14. Thanks for the reply Andy.

  15. As an undergrad philosophy major doing my senior thesis on Russell’s social philosophy, I constantly find myself going back to his metaphysics and work in logic to understand his late work. In fact, i’ve changed it to an apology for Russell’s seemingly intellectual incoherency and found this blogpost to be very interesting, and agree with Kevin Klement on Russell’s approach to publishing his philosophy. From what I remember Russell wrote himself that his general audience writings are a way to pay the bills, and it does seem to be the case he took these opportunities to improve upon certain philosophical inclinations he has had almost his whole life. Does anyone recomend any books, other than his autobiography, that may lead to more insight? I know Monk’s biography is very helpfull.

  16. Hi Ray. I think that Kevin’s webpage directs us in a useful direction. I found it so!

    You mention Monk and he has interesting things to say about Russell’s divorce from foundational philosophy in his book on Wittgenstein. But why apologise for “intellectual incoherence” when the test is comparing one stage of thought at age 20 with an outlook at age 90? I would say you’re obliged to be incoherent in that context.

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