On A Presentable Brown Hat

Just because it amused me, here’s an exchange of letters between Bronislaw Malinowski (anthropologist, proto-accommodationist) & Bertrand Russell (philosopher, advocate of nuking the USSR).

Dear Russell

On the occasion of my visit to your School I left my only presentable brown hat in your anteroom. I wonder whether since then it has had the privilege of enclosing the only brains in England which I ungrudgingly regard better than mine; or whether it has been utilised in some of the juvenile experimentations in physics, technology, dramatic art, or prehistoric symbolism; or whether it naturally lapsed out of the anteroom.

If none of these events, or shall we rather call them hypotheses, holds good or took place, could you be so good as to bring it in a brown paper parcel or by some other concealed mode of transport to London and advise me on a post card where I could reclaim it? I am very sorry that my absentmindedness, which is characteristic of high intelligence, has exposed you to all the inconvenience incidental to the event.

Yours sincerely, B. Malinowski

Russell’s reply:

Dear Malinowski

My secretary has found a presentable brown hat in my lobby which I presume is yours, indeed the mere sight of it reminds me of you. I am going to the School of Economics to give a lecture to the Students’ Union on Monday (17th), and unless my memory is as bad and my intelligence as good as yours, I will leave your hat with the porter at the School of Economics, telling him to give it to you on demand.

Yours sincerely, Bertrand Russell

Source: Russell: Autobiography, (Routledge), p. 414.

  1. Any “intellectual” who would advocate for nuking the USSR has his head up his
    a@# and has no need for a hat. Malinowski’s hat would be safe with him, given he would recognize it as an alternate head covering.

  2. Jeremy, unfortunatly I must say you live in a very strangeroom indeed. The letter does not interest me. But with regard to your silly comment that Bertrand Russell wanted to Nuke, as you say, Russia he was a famous supporter of CND. That is the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.

  3. Well, I was being provocative. But there’s no doubt that Russell came very close to advocating the nuking of the Soviet Union.

    See, for example, this article (which actually is perhaps more charitable towards Russell than he deserves):

    http://digitalcommons.mcmaster.ca/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1282&context=russelljournal

    Have you read the scholarly literature on this issue? (I have, by the way.)

  4. That’s fascinating re Russell’s position in the 40s re the USSR. I’ve read a bit about him, but somehow seem to have missed that, so thanks Jeremy for flagging it up.

    It would be interesting, I think, to do a back-to-back comparison between those comments and what Sam Harris has written about pre-emptive nuclear attacks on a nuclear-armed Islamist state (I think we can safely surmise that he’s talking about Iran.)

  5. @Colin – Although Russell is known for his WW1 pacifism, he was never in the mold of a Gandhi, for example. In his 1936 book, “Which Way to Peace?”, he argued that if a world government was ever established, it would be desirable to support it by force against rebels.

    His position in the 1940s re the USSR was an extension of that thought, only predicated upon the assumptions that a nuclear war between two evenly matched forces would mean the end of civilization and that the USSR would not acquiesce to the kinds of demands that would ensure peace (under the aegis of some sort of international umbrella organisation). He thought that meant a pre-emptive strike might be the best of a bad set of choices.

  6. I am glad that men like Russell and Malinowski predated Twitter.

    The former held very strange opinions at different points in his eventful life. I sometimes wonder if he was prolific – scribbling 3000 words a day – at the cost of being painstaking.

  7. @BenSix – Russell’s output varied over the course of his life. It took him more than 10 years to write Principia Mathematica (at the turn of the 20th Century). But he took to writing what he called “potboilers” in order to make a living, and these were sometimes written very quickly.

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