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…..

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