WHERE HAVE ALL THE LOGICIANS GONE: Russell and Wittgenstein, up in a tree!


An anecdote runs through it:
Just for the record, Bertrand Russell, the 3rd Earl Russell, led a complex, varied life. The leading authority on that life starts its account like this:
Bertrand Arthur William Russell, 3rd Earl Russell, OM FRS (18 May 1872 – 2 February 1970) was a British philosopher, logician, mathematician, historian, writer, social critic, political activist, and Nobel laureate. At various points in his life, Russell considered himself a liberal, a socialist and a pacifist, but he also admitted that he had "never been any of these things, in any profound sense." Russell was born in Monmouthshire into one of the most prominent aristocratic families in the United Kingdom.

In the early 20th century, Russell led the British "revolt against idealism." He is considered one of the founders of analytic philosophy along with his predecessor Gottlob Frege, colleague G. E. Moore and protégé Ludwig Wittgenstein. He is widely held to be one of the 20th century's premier logicians. With A. N. Whitehead he wrote Principia Mathematica, an attempt to create a logical basis for mathematics...
In Principia Mathematica, Russell wanted "to create a logical basis for mathematics." But why would you want to do that?

We'll set that question aside for another day. For now, we'll note a few basic points:

Very few general readers will have any idea what it means to say that Russell led "the British 'revolt against idealism.' " Suffice to say that "idealism" is a technical term in that statement, and that the leading authority defines British idealism as follows, if only in part:
Though much more variegated than some commentaries would seem to suggest, British idealism was generally marked by several broad tendencies: a belief in an Absolute (a single all-encompassing reality that in some sense formed a coherent and all-inclusive system); the assignment of a high place to reason as both the faculty by which the Absolute's structure is grasped and as that structure itself; and a fundamental unwillingness to accept a dichotomy between thought and object, reality consisting of thought-and-object together in a strongly coherent unity.
There! The "idealism" against which the future Lord Russell staged a 20th century jailbreak involved "a fundamental unwillingness to accept a dichotomy between thought and object, reality consisting of thought-and-object together in a strongly coherent unity."

Does reality really consist of thought-and-object together in a strongly coherent unity? If you think you have any idea what that particular puddle means, we think you may have a lot to learn!

As do we all, of course.

At any rate, Russell reportedly helped to stage a revolt against those "idealist" doctrines. As you can see from the first chunk of text we've posted, he is reportedly "widely held to be one of the 20th century's premier logicians."

It's said that he, along with several others, "is considered to be one of the founders of analytic philosophy." Ludwig Wittgenstein's name gets mentioned as one of Russell's fellow founders.

An anecdote is lurking there. Some silliness may run through it.

The anecdote comes from Russell's 1956 memoir, Portraits from Memory and Other Essays. In the anecdote, he describes an early exchange between himself and Wittgenstein, a younger man who had come to Cambridge to study under the already famous logician.

Wittgenstein arrived in Cambridge in 1912, at age 22 or 23. We'd have to say that, at least to our ear, Russell's anecdote has a somewhat silly, perhaps even slightly upper-class feel:
RUSSELL: At the end of his first term at Cambridge he came to me and said: "Will you please tell me whether I am a complete idiot or not?" I replied, "My dear fellow, I don't know. Why are you asking me?" He said, "Because, if I am a complete idiot, I shall become an aeronaut; but, if not, I shall become a philosopher." I told him to write me something during the vacation on some philosophical subject and I would then tell him whether he was a complete idiot or not. At the beginning of the following term he brought me the fulfillment of this suggestion. After reading only one sentence, I said to him: "No, you must not become an aeronaut."
That anecdote appears at the start of Professor Kenny's 1973 book, Wittgenstein. We'll confess that, at least to us, the anecdote sounds perhaps a bit silly. Might it open a window into the less-than-perfect world of our "greatest logicians?"

The various portraits in Russell's book are advertised as having been drawn "from memory." Sometimes, memory takes real world events and turns them into stories which are perfectly shaped.

For us, this anecdote has that feel. Consider:

Did Russell really make his judgment about Wittgenstein's future on the basis of having read one sentence? In fairness, it makes a wonderful tale. But what could that one sentence possibly have said?

Did Russell really say to Wittgenstein, "My dear fellow, I don't know" [if you are a complete idiot]? To us, that has a slightly silly feel, but perhaps that's the way the premier logicians in Cambridge spoke back then.

Kenny presented this anecdote at the start of a book published by the Harvard University Press in 1974. He didn't seem to think the anecdote was silly, strange or sculpted.

He also didn't include the place Lord Russell's anecdote went next. Russell's text continues as follows:
RUSSELL (continuing directly): After reading only one sentence, I said to him: "No, you must not become an aeronaut." And he didn't. He was not, however, altogether easy to deal with. He used to come to my rooms at midnight, and for hours he would walk backward and forward like a caged tiger. On arrival, he would announce that when he left my rooms he would commit suicide. So, in spite of getting sleepy, I did not like to turn him out. On one such evening, after an hour or two of dead silence, I said to him, "Wittgenstein, are you thinking about logic or about your sins?" "Both," he said, and then reverted to silence.
We now seem to be dealing with a tragic state of affairs—with a problem we'll name below.

At any rate, as Russell's story continues, he reverts, at least to our ear, to that slightly detached, slightly unfeeling, perhaps slightly upper-class air. He tells a tale about a world that's different from those where you live:
RUSSELL (continuing directly): However, we did not meet only at night. I used to take him long walks in the country round Cambridge. On one occasion I induced him to trespass with me in Madingley Wood where, to my surprise, he climbed a tree. When he had got a long way up a gamekeeper with a gun turned up and protested to me about the trespass. I called up to Wittgenstein and said the man had promised not to shoot if Wittgenstein got down within a minute. He believed me, and did so.
This has the air of the perfectly sculpted uber-celebrity tale, brilliant logician edition. For our money, Lord Russell blows right past a state of affairs cited by Professor Von Wright in his "Biographical Sketch" of Wittgenstein, a person he knew as a friend.

Von Wright's sketch appeared as part of Norman Malcolm's 1958 book, Wittgenstein: A Memoir. At one point, Von Wright says this about his friend:
VON WRIGHT: It is probably true that he lived on the border of mental illness. A fear of being driven across it followed him throughout his life.
It seems to us that Russell is perhaps a bit flip about this state of affairs. Then too, we've always felt that our tortured geniuses should get their torments attended to, then come back and be geniuses later, when they were happy and well.

Russell and Wittgenstein are listed among the last century's greatest logicians. Godel "has often been called the greatest logician since Aristotle," but he died of self-starvation, having spent his life wondering about the perfect timeless existence of circles and the logic of 2 plus 2 somehow equaling 4.

We raise the question of great logicians in the context of Donald J. Trump—but also in the context of the gruesome, deeply destructive "mainstream journalism" of the past thirty years. When we've needed the help of persuasive logicians, we've routinely been met with a vast cold silence, like something out of the most despairing Bergman film.

This has happened again and again, leading us toward this dangerous place. Dearest citizens, is it possible?

Could it be that our lordly and tormented "greatest logicians" have perhaps never been all that?

Tomorrow: A current professor's conjecture


  1. You take this "logician" business way too seriously, Bob.

    Russell, Wittgenstein, and all the rest of them - all these clowns do is writing clever bullshit. There are no revelations there.

    1. No, I think Russell could help us out with Trump.

    2. Yeah, reading bullshit and feeling clever makes you invincible, dembot.

      The unwashed deplorable masses are powerless against your awesome cleverness.

  2. "We raise the question of great logicians in the context of Donald J. Trump—but also in the context of the gruesome, deeply destructive "mainstream journalism" of the past thirty years."

    Bob, dear, a great news: The Weekly Standard is shutting down! Thank God for The Donald!

    Hopefully, a very similar but even more despicable, more goebbelsian publication - Washington Post - will follow soon...

    1. Under Trump, the neoliberal elite is laughing all the way to the bank.
      The rest is just a distraction.

    2. Nothing says economic populism better than making Lawrence Fucking Kudlow Chairman of your Council of Economic Advisors. He just gives off a warm and fuzzy feeling, am I right, as he crashes the economy.

    3. The logic of tourette-suffering dembot hatemonger: the best economy in 50 years is 'crashed economy'.

    4. You like Larry "Green Eyeshades" Kudlow, do you?

      Donny Chickenshit is going to have to go a long way to match the gold standard set by President Clinton, Boris.

      How do you say SUCKER in Russian, Boris?

    5. I don't give a shit about any Kudlow, tourette-dembot -- and neither do you.

      Hate-mongering is your sorosian-goebbelsian job, not economics.

      Otherwise, you would've probably heard something about the the globalist scumbag standard Robert Rubin...

    6. It’s the Worst Time to Make Money in Markets Since 1972


    7. Yeah, dembot, you definitely need to read more stupid opinion pieces aggravating your mental disorder, the TDS.

    8. Mao; Some day when you grow up and get a job and have a family to worry about you might give a shit watching the market fuck with your retirement, dumb fuck. "Tariff Man" Bwahahaha!!

    9. Tourette-suffering dembot giving 'market' advice. Precious.

    10. Nice. Somerby throws around terms like mentally ill to denigrate others so now Mao thinks it is OK to use diagnoses as childish insults.

  3. ‘the anecdote sounds perhaps a bit silly. Might it open a window into the less-than-perfect world of our "greatest logicians?"’

    Why should “logicians” live in a “perfect world?” Their interest and study of logic doesn’t somehow confer upon them some sort of moral perfection. They are human beings, with human frailties.

    Aside from the rather nutty notion that Russell or Wittgenstein could have influenced mainstream journalism in the US, or our politics, why should the “logicians” bear some outsized responsibility to save us from bad outcomes? Can’t the aeronauts chip in as well?

    1. TDH - you seem determined to pursue this line. You are showing yourself as a kook. One point though - Russell was politically engaged throughout his life. He was a pacifist in WWI and wrote on a broad range of political subjects, from a left position. He wrote for laymen on certain subjects, including his 'Why I am not a Christian' - pretty good book. So Wittgenstein was a nut - I'm concerned about TDH the way he is going.

    2. Not me. I enjoy this stuff. I enjoy Bob's witting, repetitive as it may sometimes be. I agree, Russell had a lot to offer in other areas of logic, such as his embrace of humanism.

      Bob makes clear that this post is in some way, if not ultimately, about how information is presented to us via the media. The sine qua non of his website.


  4. Russell’s writing is a worthwhile example of how to write about philosophy. It is clear and concise. In his book on the history of Western philosophy, he gives the important philosophers a fair hearing, but he doesn’t hesitate to criticize them for weak or flawed arguments, and he is willing to admit that he doesn’t always understand their arguments (which probably means they don’t make sense).

    But through it all, he maintains the conviction that philosophical inquiry is a worthwhile human endeavor.

  5. It makes sense that he finds hope in MLK and Malala and in the concern and good intentions of friends.

    I don’t see a worthy alternative either. Except to recommend Jesus.

  6. Cecelia: Except to recommend Jesus.

    Is that snark? I can no longer tell.

    1. Cecilia, Jesus was great, turn the other cheek, rich man is as likely to get into heaven as a camel thru the eye of a needle, love your enemies, etc - too bad hardly any Christians follow him. Speaking of Bertrand Russell, have you read his 'Why I am not a Christian'? But to each his (or her) own, it's all unknown.

    2. Cecelia, now I can't even tell whom you're talking to. You're addressing Mao but you replied to me.

      Are you recommending mythology? Or am I missing a joke?

  7. Perhaps Somerby is saying that “logicians” have greater access to the media or the halls of power due to their positions at “elite” academic institutions and their access to the book publishing world, and that therefore they have more responsibility for our discourse than the average schmo. That may be true. It was likely more true prior to the advent of the internet. Nowadays, anyone can gain a large audience through Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Blogger (Somerby’s own platform) etc, so the dynamic has changed.

    I still believe that in a democracy such as ours, it is the responsibility of every citizen to be well-informed, and that means not swallowing whatever the media (mainstream or not) cares to push upon us without attempting to verify.

    If logic is so important, then perhaps it should be mandated in our schools. That would do far more to counteract the bs in our discourse than any “logicians” attempting to steer our discourse by inserting themselves into that already corrupt discourse.

    Although, I’m reminded how the conservatives in Texas got rid of “critical thinking” skills from the school curriculum a while back, because it might lead students to question their beliefs.

  8. For a philosopher, becoming a politician or social activist or columnist or pundit or journalist, would be the equivalent of becoming an aeronaut. All of these are applied fields, whereas philosophy is theoretical. If Somerby does not understand the applied/theoretical distinction, he didn't pay attention at Harvard. It is the difference between engineering and physics, for example.

    Young men in their early 20s who are interested in philosophy can also be self-involved and overly dramatic, posturing about suicide in the way Albert Camus did for his entire life. It goes with the territory. A professor such as Russell would have understood that. Somerby instead blames the British upper class for youthful drama and pretension. Some of the brightest kids are very difficult to be around in the way Wittgenstein was, without any diagnosis of mental illness necessary.

    Logic is mandated in our schools. It is called critical thinking. It is part of geometry, rhetoric, and later formal math, all forms of applied logic.

    But I object to Somerby's [implied] assertion that if someone becomes mentally ill they can make no contribution to any field. Godel died at the end of long lifetime, many decades after his contribution to philosophy and math. This is like saying that Howard Hughes made no contributions to aviation (or any other field) because he died of self-starvation and was considered mentally ill (if not terminally eccentric).

    People in England don't go around diagnosing and labeling each other the way Americans like to do. They tolerate and even cherish their eccentrics. And one doesn't have to be upper class or elite to be eccentric. Affectations were part of growing up. Somerby appears to have very little exposure to British history, literature, or even movies. Look at Cumberbatch's portrayal of Sherlock Holmes to see the British affection for eccentricity in full glory.

    1. Riight, sure it is. Check this out if you still believe that.


      I actually saved a pdf of the platform. Yes, it was a long time ago, but there is NO WAY that what you wrote is true. Hell, civics is a moldering corpse in our school system.


  9. Goldsworthy.



  10. Our topographic maps are useless. Far from showing us the landscape and aiding us in choosing the best path, they actually mislead us. When we've needed the help of persuasive topologists, we've routinely been met with a vast cold silence, like something out of the most despairing Bergman film. Instead they spend their time studying the properties of so-called topological spaces that are invariant under continuous maps. But why would you want to do that?

    Consider the following, likely-spurious anecdote involving three famous topologists — Felix Klein, Augustus Möbius, and Georg Riemann. In his memoir Lass uns drehen wie im letzten Sommer Möbius relates the story of the time that Klein excitedly approached Riemann about his discovery of a one-sided object with no edges, which he proposed calling a Klein Bottle. “Do you see, Georg? The inside is really the outside!” “You mean just like this one, Felix?” asked Riemann, breaking a beer bottle over the other’s head. Whereupon both had a good laugh at our expense.

    to our ear, that story seems detached, slightly unfeeling, perhaps has a slightly upper-class air. Or maybe we just have a bad case of gas. Could it be that our lordly and tormented "greatest topologists” have perhaps never been all that?

  11. You miss the whole point of logic. Not the logic that 2 plus 2 equals 4 but the logic of A implies B Yet in human nature the implies is more like in quantum mechanics, A suggests B. A may imply B in November, but in December, and in different moods and circumstances A will never imply B. Human beings are not math.

    Think tanks that control messages know this very well. Marketing agencies know this. That is how we went from a nation adverse to war before Bush the first to one that thinks passing the defense budget before anything else is acceptable. (Having the Kuwaiti ambassador's daughter lie in front of Congress helped sway the nation.)

    People understand the human logic behind it. The ones that do do two things. Make themselves rich by working in a think tank. Sit quietly and avoid speaking out.

    There is no open discussion on this.

  12. "In Principia Mathematica, Russell wanted "to create a logical basis for mathematics." But why would you want to do that?"

    Because Kant claimed that mathematics generated "synthetic *a priori* knowledge." Russell wanted to show that Kant *could* be right, by providing such an *a priori* basis for all of mathematics. Whitehead found the enterprise interesting, but a philosophical failed experiment, from which he drew the necessary (platonic) conclusions.

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