Tag Archives: bertrand russell

Philosophically vicious

While I think there is a conceptual difference between doing philosophy and being a proper philosopher, I admit that people act as if they are substantially linked. In particular, when someone wants to accuse their intellectual arch-nemesis of being a non-philosopher, they will marshal a reliable collection of taunts or insults. The drama that ensues is usually tedious and not worth dwelling on, except for the fact that the insults that self-described philosophers level against each other actually tells us something about what they value most about philosophy. (And also, I suppose, because there is a small cottage industry in philosophy that is now dedicated to the conceptual analysis of naughty words. Recall Frankfurt on Bullshit, McGinn on Mindfucking, and Aaron James on Assholes.)

If you want to insult a self-described philosopher, you have to point to their vices. A vice is just a lonely virtue — the thing that makes traits virtuous is that they come in clusters. For example, if you have the gift of insight, but lack any other intellectual virtues, then you are a dogmatist.

As far as I can tell, ‘being philosophical’ involves the manifestation of two kinds of virtues: the right intentions (insightful belief, humble commitments), and the right reflective methods (rationality in thought, cooperation in conversation). One should expect that being philosophical means you should be able to manifest at least some of right intentions and at least some of the right ways. The aspiring philosopher must manifest the right intentions, but their work cannot be all about good intentions. By the same token, the aspirant must manifest some facility with the right methods, but the whole of their work cannot be confined to reflective methods. Philosophers actually have to help us do something, understand something.

In theory, some insults are grotesque offenses to the philosophical mind. No aspiring philosopher should want to be found guilty of being a dogmatist, worry-wart, puzzle-solver, or sycophant; if the definition of ‘philosopher’ ever countenances such habits of mind, then I will finally know that I have lost all sense of what the word means. There is a non-trivial possibility that I have never known what philosophy is, but I am comforted by the fact that I appear to be in good company. Recall the Gellner-Ryle spat, where variations on all four accusations show up in print. First, Russell admonishes Ryle for running the risk of turning Mind into “the mutual admiration organ of a coterie” (sycophancy); then GRG Mure of Oxford accuses practitioners of the OLP movement as being “long self-immunized to criticism” (dogmatism); and later Arnold Kaufner (Michigan) alludes to the possibility that the Oxford group as guilty of “precious cleverness” and “genteel subtlety” (puzzle-solvers) and “ritualistic caution” (worry-warts).

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The problem with these sorts of insults is that they are so broad that when they are used by institutional peers the words will probably have no force. These insults mark out properties of persons which would be obvious if they were true, and hence would not usually even need to be asserted. Between institutional peers, the barb of an insult is most effective to the extent that it conforms to the facts, and the extent to which the assertion actually reveals something informative about those facts. People fall more in love with the subtler insults, ones that are grounded in the truth and in a potentially surprising way. The more intemperate and thoughtless your insults, the less people need to pay attention to you.*

Most readers are aware of the fact that during the 20th century there was a distinction between analytic philosophy and continental metaphysics. This distinction was based on innumerable factors, including substantive disagreements over particular viewpoints, and wide disagreement over who counted as an authority in philosophy. And that’s fine. But whatever the initial causes of the divide, it persisted in part because each side was able to caricature the other side as unphilosophical in one of the above ways. For analytic philosophers, continental metaphysicians were seen as romantic malcontents. (Recall Russell on existentialism: “It is from a mood of feeling oppressed that existentialism stages its rebellion against rationalism… The rationalist sees his freedom in a knowledge of how nature works; the existentialist finds it in an indulgence of his moods.”) Meanwhile, continental philosophers thought of analytic philosophers as methodology-obsessed and science-craven. (My use of the past tense is strategic but fanciful.)

***

Some people (let’s call them romantics) talk about philosophy as if it described the expression of deep and serious thoughts on some profound issue. The romantic approach to philosophy likes to think that the primary point of philosophy is to play with ideas, to enjoy the freedom to think. Arguments are not conceived as tools, but as a canvas, and the fruit of the argument comes from weaving out authentic interconnections. The artisan delights in the avant garde, and enjoys seeing what an experimental attitude towards philosophy might bring about.

But no matter how deep you think your beliefs are, no matter how humble you are in adopting them, and no matter how sincere you are in expressing them, you owe it to your readers to show how you could be wrong. As interesting as your deep thoughts may be, if your philosophy of life can’t be assessed in public, and if you take no part in that ongoing assessment, then it is not a part of your work as a philosopher and you’re not acting like much of a philosopher when you do it. Good intentions and deep insights are not enough to acquit a writer of using obscure jargon and dubious inferences. Anthony Kenny knew and collaborated with Jacques Derrida as a young man, but his final judgment on Derrida’s work is both fair and decisive: Derrida’s M.O. was to “introduce new terms whose effect is to confuse ideas that are perfectly distinct”.

Sometimes, people are unfairly targeted as romantics when in retrospect they ought to have been given a fair shake. Marshall McLuhan is one of the most famous Canadian intellectuals from the 20th century, and his work has undeniable insight and natural modesty. He is owed due credit as a futurist and media theorist, and I am sure philosophers could learn quite a lot from his work. But while I leave it to others to determine whether or not he was a proper philosopher, I expect few would. Certainly, today’s professional philosophers do not. Max Black (anticipating Harry Frankfurt) referred to McLuhan as one of his generation’s humbuggers. All the same, I cannot help but point out that McLuhan seems to have been philosophizing, at least in the generous historical sense that I am working with. While there is no attempt at rigor, there was usually a reasonable chain of inferences and engagement in a wider Humanities-wide conversation. Of course, his dictum “The medium is the message” was obtuse — but even so, the point he was trying to make was comparably interesting.

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What holds for one extreme also holds for the other. If you say that philosophy is all about method – if, in other words, you are a scholastic intellectual technician– then it is hard to see how you could make any but the most perfunctory gestures to truth or understanding. When you ask someone who is obsessed with methodology why they do philosophy, they will explain to you the importance of trading of reasons for reasons, and how the rules of the philosophical game work. They will not answer a direct question, like “What consequence does this intellectual puzzle have to our lives?”. Instead, the inquiry will be treated as intrinsically valuable in the worst possible sense of the phrase. The technician is interested in getting to the heart of the ‘rules of chmess‘ thing once and for all, and we are unaffected by the effort.

Don’t be too hard on the technician. In all likelihood, the methods-obsessed soul has been appropriately traumatized by the most odious aspects of the philosophical culture, by pointless dogmatists and contrarians. You can hardly blame them for retreating to the safety and surety of intellectual Sudoku, any more than you can blame hobbits for keeping to the Shire.

The approach from method faces an additional burden, in that it does its part in stamping out philosophy as a distinctive and productive part of the Humanities. So, critics of modern analytic philosophy can ask the philosopher to show that reasoning from the armchair is both intellectually productive and distinctively non-scientific. Of course, it is now well-known that armchair methods are not always as productive as they seem. But it is also not obvious that armchair methods are distinctively philosophical. For, contrary to empiricist prejudices, quite a lot of good science could not be done unless we used some kind of aprioristic methods — be that in the form of mathematics, metaphysics, or modelling. Hence, in order to say something distinctive about philosophy, we have to talk about a productive and interesting part of the philosophical tradition that would be tough to sell as science. At least in the broader historical picture, intentional virtues are part of the philosopher’s real estate.

It is much more difficult to mention an example of a technician, in part because they are seldom remembered or celebrated after passing on. People bother to remember McLuhan, even if he was not even wrong, because it turns out that he had a thing to say and it was important that he said it. In contrast, empty refinements of method and their application to irrelevant and inconsequential subjects is not even ‘not even wrong’ — it is not even bullshit.

– BLSN

* Notice: this lesson only applies when it comes to exchanges between institutional peers. It is quite a different story if there are differences in power-relations, as John Kerry learned in 2004.

Russell vs. Ryle–A Philosophical Spat

As is well-known, Bertrand Russell wasn’t too keen on the “ordinary language philosophy” that was popular among Oxford philosophers in the middle of the twentieth century. This meant that when the sociologist Ernest Gellner wrote a book, Words and Things (pub: 1959), that was highly critical of the approach, Russell was only too happy to write its Preface.

At this time, the editor of Mind was Gilbert Ryle, a leading exponent of the Oxford approach, and he refused to allow Words and Things to be reviewed in the journal on the grounds that it was abusive and could not therefore be regarded as a serious contribution to academic debate.

This annoyed Russell, who promptly penned a letter to The Times, which resulted in a philosophical spat that played out in the newspaper’s letters pages during November 1959.

I reproduce it below.

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Not Suitable For Unusually Stupid Children

Another entry in my occasional bad-tempered Prefaces series. This is from Bertrand Russell’s Unpopular Essays.
Preface to Unpopular Essays

A word as to the title. In the Preface to my Human Knowledge, I said that I was writing not only for professional philosophers, and that “philosophy proper deals with matters of interest to the general educated public.” Reviewers took me to task, saying that they found parts of the book difficult, and implying that my words were such as to mislead purchasers. I do not wish to expose myself again to this charge; I will therefore confess that there are several sentences in the present volume which some unusually stupid children of ten might find a little puzzling. On this ground I do not claim that the essays are popular; and if not popular, then “unpopular”.

In the Volume 2 of his biography, Ray Monk provides some context for the “peevish” tone struck here. Russell had been disappointed by the reaction to Human Knowledge, which he had hoped would win the respect of academic philosophers as well as appeal to a large general audience. In fact, neither of these things occurred. The book was savaged by his colleagues – Norman Malcolm declared that “Anyone who feels grateful to Russell, as I do, for the splendid work he did in philosophy and logic during the first twenty years of this century, is likely to regard the present book with considerable regret” – and largely ignored by the general public.

Bertrand Russell, LIFE magazine profile, April 1 1940

Just flagging this up, because it’s cool.

Bertrand Russell Rides Out Collegiate Cyclone

It’s a LIFE magazine profile of Bertrand Russell that was published in April 1940, right in the middle of the College of the City of New York scandal. (This is where Russell was described in court as “lecherous, salacious, libidinous, lustful, venerous, erotomaniac, aphrodisiac, atheistic, irreverent, narrow-minded, bigoted and untruthful”.)

Lord Russell meet Lord Russell

More from the world of Bertrand Russell. Here’s an exchange of letters between Russell and his namesake, Lord Russell of Liverpool, which took place in February 1959.

Dear Lord Russell

I am forwarding the enclosed as Monsieur Edmond Paris, and he is not alone, has got us mixed up. The first paragraph of his letter refers to you. The others are for me and I shall be replying to them. Would you please return the letter when you have read it.

Yours truly,
Russell of Liverpool

Dear Lord Russell

Thank you for your letter and for the enclosure which I return herewith. I have been wondering whether there is any means of preventing the confusion between you and me, and I half-thought we might write a joint letter to The Times in the following terms: Sir, To prevent the continuation of confusions which frequently occur, we beg to state that neither of us is the other. Do you think this would be a good plan?

Yours sincerely,
Russell

Dear Lord Russell

Many thanks for your letter of the 18th.

I am not sure whether you are in earnest or joking about a joint letter to The Times but, in either event, I think it is a good idea. Even were it not effective it would provide a little light amusement, and if you would care to write such a letter I would gladly add my signature below yours.

[…]

Yours sincerely,
Russell of Liverpool

Dear Lord Russell of Liverpool

Thank you for you letter of February 20. I was both serious and joking in my suggestion of a joint letter. I enclose a draft which I have signed, but I am entirely willing to alter the wording, if you think it too frivolous. I think, however, the present wording is more likely to secure attention than a more solemn statement.

Yours sincerely,
Russell

Dear Lord Russell

I have forwarded our letter to The Times but I have asked them, of course, to put your name before mine.

I like the wording immensely.

Russell of Liverpool

And thanks to the magic of the internet, here’s the letter, which appeared in The Times on February 28 1959.

russell_russell

More On Loving Bertrand Russell

“I feel I must be honest & just say once…that I am utterly devoted to thee, & have been for over 50 years. My friends have always known that I loved thee more than anyone else in the world, & they now rejoice with me that I am now able to see thee again.”—Alys Pearsall Smith

I thought I’d add some further detail to the heartbreaking tale of Alys Pearsall Smith’s lifelong love for Bertrand Russell.

Alys Pearsall Smith

Alys Pearsall Smith

Russell fell out of love with Alys in 1901, and finally left her in 1911. In August 1926, Russell’s Aunt Agatha – his mother’s sister – wrote the following letter to Russell, now married to Dora, after he had complained about a picture of Alys his aunt had up on her mantelpiece.

You owe her everything since the separation. But for her, Dora would be Miss Black, and your children illegitimate – the slightest spark of gratitude in you would acknowledge what you owe to her since you left her, in so many ways that I cannot write of. Her conduct has been noble since the separation – I am very far from being the only one who thinks this…

It would have been more manly and chivalrous of you to write me not to withdraw friendship from the woman you brought into the family, the woman you once loved and had forsaken, though her love was unchanged… You now in these later times always speak of “pain to me”, “giving me pain”, etc. – Do you ever think of Alys’s suffering – from her love for you… Yet she always speaks beautifully of you, wishing only for your happiness. Do not imagine for a moment that I ever forget, and did not feel most acutely, your own unhappiness… but to those who truly loved you, it is heart-breaking that you have not grown nobler, stronger, more loving and tender through suffering, but in every way the reverse.

Russell’s biographer, Ray Monk, notes that while Alys remained helplessly in love with Russell, following his public activities closely, and keeping a scrapbook of cuttings about him, Russell for his part scarcely gave her a thought. As for Aunt Agatha, Dora dismissed her as a “malicious old lady”, Russell’s brother Frank labelled her an “acid old spinster” and Russell hardly noticed her at all.

My Research Philosophy

From http://hypernews.ngdc.noaa.gov

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Imagine, if you will, a once noble vessel, now stricken and adrift. Many of the decks are ruined shells, filled with debris and inhabited by the lost and helpless. Other decks are nicer, but still plagued with troubles. To make matters worse, members of the crew and passengers live in rival groups and periodically slaughter each other over various matters. The situation is all the more hopeless because there are no lifeboats and virtually no chance of any outside help (although some swear to have seen lights in the sky).

Some few do try to set the ship right and get her back on course. Oddly enough some of the brightest passengers have retreated into the ship’s towers (the walls of which are lined with tiles of finely cut elephant tusks). In the towers, these bright people scribble furiously on scraps of paper in languages only they and their fellows can understand. These scraps, which deal with such dire matters as whether blue is green or green is blue, are passed from tower to tower to the delight of the inhabitants. Sometimes they gather together in bands and, behind tightly closed doors, discuss important matters such as whether they exist or not. While one might expect the crew and passengers would unite and toss such oddballs to the sharks, they do not. Instead, regular tribute is given to the tower dwellers.

Given the dire plight of the ship, it seems immoral for the tower dwellers to squander their intellects and the ship’s resources in such activities. Instead, it seems fair to expect them to help solve the problems that plague the stricken vessel, and those on board.

Not surprisingly, the stricken ship is a crudely obvious metaphor for the earth and the ‘oddballs’ in the tower are, of course, philosophers.

While the analogy might seem a bit silly, it is not all that far from the truth. After all, one has but to look at the daily paper or any news show to see just how well things are going. War, crime, disease, sexism, racism, violence, genocide and other problems abound in the ‘real’ world.

Philosophers are often regarded as being detached from the ‘real’ world. This is shown, in part, by the fact that philosophers tend to focus their research on highly abstract, often self-generated puzzles and conundrums whose solutions (if ever obtained) would seem to have no significant consequences. Further, even when philosophers attempt to address ‘real’ problems, they seem to take perverse delight in creating the most diabolically convoluted and irrelevant papers and presentations possible. Naturally, these papers and presentations are largely for the consumption of other philosophers.

While abstract philosophy has its merits, my view is that a significant portion of philosophical research should be aimed at these very serious problems. When people are on a stricken vessel, each person is expected to help out with the situation. Thus, it seems reasonable to take the current situation on earth to be remarkably like that of a stricken ship. Thus, philosophers are under an obligation to help out.

Given my view on this matter, much of my research has focused on such serious problems that have significant consequences in the world. I have written extensively on topics in ethics, technology, and politics with an approach that is both practical and philosophical.

That said, many philosophic problems are rightly regarded as very important matters and some are even regarded as eternal and essential questions. Bertrand Russell, in The Problems of Philosophy, presented an eloquent and excellent case for the value of philosophy and philosophic questions. To blend Russell’s words with a wonderful line from the Matrix, it’s the questions that drive us to expand our imaginations, to open up new possibilities and to free ourselves from dogmatism. These things certainly seem good and worthwhile.

While Russell argued for the value of philosophy, he also recognized the importance of being involved in the problems of the ‘real’ world. Perhaps the best example of this was in 1960 when Russell told a journalist that there was no time to talk about philosophy in the face of the nuclear threat. True to his word, Russell went out and was arrested for protesting against nuclear weapons. Thus, it would seem that philosophers are not excused from being involved in ‘real’ world problems. Of course, such an argument from authority is relatively weak. Fortunately, another argument can be given.

If philosophers defend their pursuits by claiming that the importance of the philosophic problems obligates them to work on them, then it would seem that philosophers would be equally obligated to work on problems of similar importance. It seems reasonable that matters of life and death, the survival of the human race, and human freedom are matters which are equally important as the problem of personal identity, epistemology and whether beauty is a real quality of objects or not. Hence, it would seem that philosophers cannot be excused simply by claiming that what they do is too important to allow the ‘real’ world to interfere. This does not mean that philosophers should stop doing philosophy. Many philosophic questions overlap with and are relevant to critical ‘real’ world problems. Philosophers are actually ideally suited to deal with problems in a rational and logical manner. This view is what guides my approach to philosophical research.

Thus, philosophers should still do philosophy, but they should also become more involved in the problems of the world.

My Amazon Author Page

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On Loving Bertrand Russell

Bertrand Russell married his first love, Alys Pearsall Smith, on 13 December 1894. In the autumn of 1901, he had a revelation:

I went out bicycling one afternoon, and suddenly, as I was riding along a country road, I realised that I no longer loved Alys. I had had no idea until this moment that my love for her was even lessening. The problem presented by this discovery was very grave. We had lived ever since our marriage in the closest possible intimacy. We always shared a bed, and neither of us ever had a separate dressing-room. We talked over together everything that ever happened to us… I knew that she was still devoted to me. I had no wish to be unkind, but I believed in those days…that in intimate relations one should speak the truth.

Russell justifies his change of feelings by levelling a number of criticisms against Alys:

She tried to be more impeccably virtuous than is possible to human beings, and was thus led to insincerity. Like her brother Logan, she was malicious, and liked to make people think ill of each other, but she was not aware of this, and was instinctively subtle in her methods. She would praise people in such a way as to cause others to admire her generosity, and think worse of the people praised than if she had criticised them. Often malice made her untruthful.

Russell and Alys finally separated in 1911, and divorced in 1921.

Alys Pearsall Smith

Alys Pearsall Smith

Fifty years after Russell’s revelation, Alys wrote the following description of their marriage:

Bertie was an ideal companion, & he taught me more than I can ever repay. But I was never clever enough for him, & perhaps he was too sophisticated for me. I was ideally happy for several years, almost deliriously happy, until a change of feelings made our mutual life very difficult. A final separation led to divorce, when he married again. But that was accomplished without bitterness, or quarrels, or recriminations, & later with great rejoicing on my part when he was awarded the OM. But my life was completely changed, & I was never able to meet him again for fear of the renewal of my awful misery, & heartsick longing for the past. I only caught glimpses of him at lectures or concerts occasionally, & thro’ the uncurtained windows of his Chelsea house, where I used to watch him sometimes reading to his children. Unfortunately, I was neither wise enough nor courageous enough to prevent this one disaster from shattering my capacity for happiness & my zest for life.

In 1949, Russell and Alys renewed their acquaintance and began a correspondence that continued for two years until her death. In April 1950, aged 82, Alys sent him the following letter:

I have so enjoyed our two meetings & thee has been so friendly, that I feel I must be honest & just say once (but once only) that I am utterly devoted to thee, & have been for over 50 years. My friends have always known that I loved thee more than anyone else in the world, & they now rejoice with me that I am now able to see thee again.

But my devotion makes no claim, and involves no burden on thy part, nor any obligation, not even to answer this letter.

But I shall still hope thee can spare time to come to lunch or dinner before very long…

Thine ever, Alys

Heartbreaking.

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.

But He’s the Brother of an Earl!

This is just a bit of light relief. I’ve been collecting Bertrand Russell anecdotes (for a possible future web project). Here are two.

The first is famous, and as far as I can tell – courtesy of Twitter – it was first cited in Robert Skidelsky’s book, English Progressive Schools. It concerns Beacon Hill School, a progressive school that Russell founded with his second wife, Nora, in 1927.

“Rumors were rife of godless orgies. When a pastor visited Beacon Hill, a naked teenage girl was supposed to have answered the door. “Good God”, gasped the astonished cleric. “There is no God,” she replied, slamming the door in his face.”

The second is less well known, and appears in Russell’s autobiography (pp. 240-41, pub. Routledge). The context is a meeting that Russell attended towards the end of the First World War that was stormed by an angry mob convinced it was full of enemy collaborators.

The mob burst in led by a few officers; all except the officers were more or less drunk. The fiercest were viragos who used wooden boards full of rusty nails. An attempt was made by the officers to induce the women among us to retire first so that they might deal as they thought fit with the pacifist men, whom they supposed to be all cowards. Mrs Snowden behaved on this occasion in a very admirable manner. She refused point-blank to leave the hall unless the men were allowed to leave at the same time. The other women present agreed with her. This rather upset the officers in charge of the roughs, as they did not particularly wish to assault women. But by this time the mob had its blood up, and pandemonium broke loose. Everybody had to escape as best they could while the police looked on calmly. Two of the drunken viragos began to attack me with their boards full of nails. While I was wondering how one defended oneself against this type of attack, one of the ladies among us went up to the police and suggested that they should defend me. The police, however, merely shrugged their shoulders. ‘But he is an eminent philosopher’, said the lady, and the police still shrugged. But he is famous all over the world as a man of learning’, she continued. The police remained unmoved. ‘But he is the brother of an earl’, she finally cried. At this, the police rushed to my assistance.

If you know any other Russell anecdotes, or indeed, similar anecdotes involving other philosophers, feel free to tell us about them in the comments.