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