Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Portraits From Memory, "Chapter" Seven

“Hopes: Realized and Disappointed,” pages 44-49

Russell opens this chapter describing those contours of the global political situation that, in his youth, were expected to remain stable: the great powers were both European and monarchies, with the then-recent half-exception of France; England itself was class-ridden and imperialist. Not all of the queen’s subjects supported Britain’s expansionist tendencies, but even these dissenters nevertheless took pride in British might. “I both hoped and expected to see throughout the world a gradual spread of parliamentary democracy, personal liberty, and freedom for the countries that were at that time subject to European Powers, including Britain [p. 45].” The institution of free trade and the erosion of nationalism were expected to diffuse globally, and young Russell followed his parents and godfather in supporting the emancipation of women.

Russell indicates that his evaluation of political conditions has not changed since he was young. “The things which I thought good in those days, I still think good [p. 45].” Britain’s domestic situation has improved, with voting rights for women, moderate socialism that still respects liberty, and greater tolerance of moral differences. Life expectancy is higher, people are healthier, living standards are up; Russell believes, as a consequence, that people are happier in Britain than they were when he was young. (Russell is writing long after the publication of his own The Conquest of Happiness, but before the Easterlin paradox was conceived.)

The international scene has darkened, however. The old repressive regimes in Russia and central Europe have been succeeded by a worse tyranny out of Moscow. “China, after a long period of go-as-you-please anarchy, is being wielded in a great crucible of suffering into an infinitely formidable weapon of military power [p. 46].” The United States is backtracking on liberalism, and the specter of nuclear catastrophe hangs over everyone. “Perhaps a well-ordered prison is all that the human race deserves – so at least the Devil whispers in moments of discouragement [p. 46].” But Russell will hew to his youthful view of what constitutes the good life, and will not revise it to reflect momentary, pessimistic assessments of what can be hoped for. Failure to accept reality is undesirable, of course. “But it is also a bad thing to assume that whatever is in the ascendant must be right, that regard for fact demands subservience to evil [p. 47].” Regimentation might win some victories, but that does not make it admirable.

As the youthful Russell hoped and expected that good outcomes would emerge with time, so does the mature Russell. The threat of a war of annihilation can be eliminated, poverty can be overcome, tolerance can grow, and the scope for personal initiative can expand. Surely people will grow tired of living amidst “a welter of organized hatreds and threats of mutual extermination [p. 47].” People could not live that way with their close neighbors, and states should not arrange their affairs in such a manner, either.

Russell balances two voices in his head, that of the Devil’s Advocate and that of the Earnest Publicist (p. 48). The Devil’s Advocate chastises him for (earnestly) meddling in public affairs, which will prove impervious to his ramblings. But maybe the Devil’s Advocate is mistaken, maybe public opinion can sway dictators – and at any rate, political commentary at least offers a benign occupation for Russell’s time. “And so I go on writing books, though whether any good will come of doing so, I do not know [p. 49].”

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Portraits From Memory, "Chapter" Six

“Beliefs: Discarded and Retained,” pages 38-43

With help from G. E. Moore, Russell discarded his early enchantment with Hegel, and Hegel’s “one”: “When I first threw over Hegel, I was delighted to be able to believe in the bizarre multiplicity of the world [p. 38].” Russell’s reaction to his dismissal of Hegel was, at first, to take as true all that Hegel disbelieved. So Russell accepted the multiplicity of truths, the atomistic nature of the world, and the reality of abstract mathematical concepts. “Pythagoras and Plato had let their views of the universe be shaped by mathematics, and I followed them gaily [p. 39].” Whitehead’s ability to adopt mathematical logic to make sense of, not a world of definite borders but a world of vague outlines, lent Russell a way out of conflating ideal forms with reality.

Over time, what first appears to be fundamental turns out to be mere superficial. Imagine existing on the surface of the sun, with its flux of swirling gasses. There would be no “things” to count, and hence you wouldn’t dream of counting. What we take as common sense on earth would be the most “fantastic metaphysical speculation [p. 40]” in such an environment.

Reality is imprecise, whereas mathematics is precise. There is no such thing as a rod that is exactly one yard long, and the notion of a yard is itself imprecise. Plato, at least, was correct in locating exactness outside of earth, as it has no reality here. Russell mourns the lack of precision, but takes solace in the fact that even in the real world (and hence outside of its domain of purity), mathematics is the useful, if blunt, tool for making progress.

In his reaction against Hegel, Russell’s atomistic view encompassed language: a word had to signify some thing. But logic’s interesting words, like “if” or “not,” do not readily admit to such an interpretation; Russell “came to think that many words and phrases have no significance in isolation, but only contribute to the significance of whole sentences [p. 42].”

“Nevertheless” – another problematic word! – Russell indicates that most of his beliefs about logic have survived for the fifty-five years since he jettisoned Hegel. The world is not limited to what is in our heads. “I still think that what we can know about the world outside the thoughts and feelings of living beings, we can know only through physical science [p. 42].” We must observe, and cannot just reason our way to truths. [In Unpopular Essays, Chapter 4, Russell chides philosophers like Descartes and Leibniz for believing that it is “possible to find out important things, such as the nature of God, by merely sitting still and thinking…”.]

Russell notes that his interest and activism in public issues, including the struggle for women’s suffrage, long pre-dated World War I. “But it was not until 1914 that social questions became my main preoccupation [p. 43].”

Monday, November 21, 2011

Portraits From Memory, "Chapter" Five

“From Logic to Politics,” pages 32-37

World War I marked the transition of Russell’s intellectual activities towards political issues, and away, though not completely, from mathematical logic. The causes and prevention of war became Russell’s primary concern, one in which he lacked expertise, particularly in mastering the persuasion that is requisite when hoping to influence social questions.

Russell engaged in a youthful flirtation with imperialist ideas, but a new appreciation for the ubiquity of loneliness led, in 1901, to a conversion experience. “In the course of a few minutes I changed my mind about the Boer War, about harshness in education and in the criminal law, and about combativeness in private relations [p. 33].” [Hmmm, when was the last time I reversed my opinion on an important issue?] The conversion and its consequences were published by Russell in A Free Man’s Worship, but for the next decade, he was chiefly involved in the “Herculean task” of writing, with Whitehead, Principia Mathematica.

Russell, unaware of psychoanalysis, nonetheless adopted a psychoanalytic view towards the mass passions that grip people in wartime. He thought that it would require changes in the feelings in individuals, away from cruelty, for violence-reducing reforms to be sustainable. Feelings are generated through many channels, of course. Nevertheless, people, in general, “will be kindly or hostile in their feelings toward each other in proportion as they feel their lives successful or unsuccessful [pages 33-34].”

The Russia that Russell visited in 1920 was governed by a philosophy of hate. Moscow’s version of Marxism involved an error of theory and an error of feeling. The error in theory was to limit the concern with power relations among humans to that of economic power, and further, to equate economic power with ownership. The abolition of private ownership of the means of production, however, simply left individuals at the mercy of the power of state officials – a power even greater than that enjoyed by the titans of capitalism. The error in feeling was the belief that hate could serve as force for bringing forth good. “Those who had been inspired mainly by hatred of capitalists and landowners had acquired the habit of hating, and after achieving victory were impelled to look for new objects of detestation [p. 35].” Lenin and the early Bolsheviks had good intentions, but with hate as their motive force and with their selective distaste for power, they brought about a hell on earth. Right thinking and right feeling are both necessary for improving the human condition.

Following shortly upon his brief Russia visit, Russell visited China for almost a year. “China at that time was in a condition of anarchy; and, while Russia had too much government, China had too little [p. 35].” [Recall that Russell expressed a fairly positive opinion of anarchic political systems in Proposed Roads to Freedom.] Russell foresaw then, what he thinks we are in the process of seeing realized now (1956), a world of three major powers, those of the United States, Russia, and China – and in the process, China, forced to match its rivals militarily, sacrificed its traditional virtues.

Russell offers no panacea, and believes that we should beware the “dogmatic and fanatical belief in some doctrine for which there is no adequate evidence [p. 35].” [Here we see again the anti-dogmatism also expressed by Russell in Unpopular Essays and elsewhere.] Those who hold to isms, like the Bolsheviks, tend to be motivated by hatred.

Russell would have liked to be part of a like-thinking crowd, such as Liberals or Pacifists, but finds he can accept only slices of their creeds. As a result, he has led a lonely existence; nonetheless, his situation has improved since 1939, as his opinions have more nearly coincided with those commonly held by the British.

World history since 1914 has not unfolded in the direction Russell favored. “Nationalism has increased, militarism has increased, liberty has diminished [p. 36].” Civilization has, in many parts of the globe, lost ground, and victory in world wars has compromised the values of the victors. A war of annihilation threatens humanity. But as always, Russell expresses optimism. War and poverty are both problems that admit of solutions, and the solutions would be found if people could look more to their own happiness than to ensuring the misery of their enemies. “Hatred, folly, and mistaken beliefs alone stand between us and the millennium [p. 37].” Perhaps the enormous costs involved in not solving our problems will frighten humanity into enlightenment.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Portraits From Memory, "Chapter" Four

“Experiences of a Pacifist in the First World War,” pages 26-31

As early as 1902 Russell dissented from a policy proposal that allied England with Russia and ensured a rift with Germany. He saw the damage to civilization that a great war would bring, and supported English neutrality. “Subsequent history has confirmed me in this opinion [p. 26].” He drafted, circulated, and published a petition favoring neutrality, but once war broke out, most of the signatories changed their stance. Russell noticed, and was surprised by, the significant public support for the war.

Russell regretted German battlefield successes, but he never had any doubt that he had to dissent against what then passed for English patriotism, by protesting the war. “I hardly supposed that much good would come of opposing the war, but I felt that for the honor of human nature those who were not swept off their feet should show that they stood firm [p. 28].” So speeches were delivered, and one gathering of pacifists at a church was attacked by an alcohol-fueled mob, where the courage of the women pacifists helped to limit the violence that was inflicted on everyone. Later, at the same church, the pulpit was burned before Russell could give a scheduled speech. “These were the only occasions on which I came across personal violence; all my other meetings were undisturbed [p. 29].”

Russell spent four and a half months in prison in 1918, with liberty to read and write, as long as he steered clear of pacifist propaganda. So he wrote and read steadily. “I found prison in many ways quite agreeable [p. 30].” The privilege to read and write only was extended to prisoners in the so-called first-division; Russell recognizes that for lower-division inmates, prison is an awful place.

After his release from prison, the end of the war was clearly on its way; nevertheless, the precise end of the war came quickly. When the armistice was announced at 11AM on November 11, Russell -- who had a few hours advance knowledge -- was in Tottenham Court Road. The shops emptied for revelry, and a man and a woman, unacquainted up to that point, kissed in the street. “The crowd rejoiced and I also rejoiced. But I remained as solitary as before [p. 31].”

Friday, November 11, 2011

Portraits From Memory, "Chapter" Three

"Some Philosophical Contacts," pages 19-25

Russell admits to daydreaming as a child about receiving letters of praise from foreigners who had managed to read his work. Such letters eventually came his way, the first from the French philosopher Louis Couturat. They developed a friendship over a shared interest in Leibniz, but they moved apart as Couturat’s enthusiasm turned to the synthetic language of Ido.

Kant served as Russell’s welcome entrĂ©e into the German philosophers, but Hegel also came highly recommended. Russell was so put off by Hegel’s comments on the philosophy of mathematics, that he rejected Hegel wholesale, and (for other reasons) also stepped away from Kant. German mathematicians, however, began to assume a large role in Russell’s thought: Weierstrass, Dedekind, and, especially, Cantor, were important influences. To ensure that he understood Cantor, Russell re-wrote Cantor’s work nearly verbatim, as the requisite slow pace enhanced comprehension. Cantor was eccentric, and committed to the proposition that Bacon wrote Shakespeare. Russell and Cantor corresponded, but never met.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, Russell’s mathematical motivator became Frege. A teacher gave Russell a copy of Frege’s 1879 book Begriffsschrift, which Russell belatedly read in 1901: “I rather suspect that I was its first reader [p. 22].” Frege was the first proponent of Russell’s view “that mathematics is a prolongation of logic… [p. 22].” Frege’s belief, early in the twentieth century, that he had managed to reduce all mathematics to logic came undone by Russell’s construction of a contradiction: Frege frankly acknowledged the problem. “To my lasting regret, I never met Frege, but I am glad to have done all that lay in my power to win him the recognition which he deserved [pp. 22-23].”

Russell then recounts his early acquaintance with Ludwig Wittgenstein, who sought out Bertrand at Cambridge. Bertie’s endorsement of Ludwig’s philosophical capabilities apparently put a stop to what might have been a career as an aeronaut. Wittgenstein was hard to get along with, and would visit Russell late at night and talk of committing suicide. Russell provides more details of Wittgenstein’s life, including his internment at the end of World War I, his release of his inherited fortune to avoid distraction from philosophy, and his unhappy existence as a village schoolmaster. Russell admits to being influenced by the early doctrines of Wittgenstein, though their views later diverged. Russell holds Wittgenstein in high regard: “…at the time when I knew him well he was immensely impressive as he had fire and penetration and intellectual purity to a quite extraordinary degree [p. 24].”

Russell ends this chapter with a description of the extreme commitment to philosophy of Branislav Petronievic, whom Russell met at the end of World War I, and “namechecks” two significant intellectual influences, “the Italian Peano, and my friend G. E. Moore [p. 25].”

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Portraits From Memory, "Chapter" Two

“Why I Took to Philosophy,” pages 13-18

Greek skepticism of religion and sense data led to two strands of philosophy. One strand questions the validity of our common sense, and the other strand suggests that there is a deeper philosophical knowledge that comes closer to truth, and even a comfortable truth. “In almost all philosophy doubt has been the goad and certainty has been the goal [pp. 13-14].”

Russell’s interest in philosophy grew from the usual motives, with emphases on finding ineluctable truths and “some satisfaction for religious impulses [p. 14].” He found mathematics to his liking, despite his reluctance to have to accept unproven postulates before headway could be made; he hoped that human society could be put on the same mathematical footing as physics.

His concerns about the foundations of mathematics were sustained when he suspected (correctly) that his Cambridge professors were hawking incorrect proofs. As a result, he welcomed Kantian philosophy, which later he discarded. “I was encouraged,” writes Russell, “in my transition to philosophy by a certain disgust with mathematics, resulting from too much concentration and too much absorption in the sort of skill that is needed in examinations [p. 16].” After finishing his math exams at Cambridge, he sold his math books and devoted himself to philosophy.

Russell’s hope of overcoming his growing religious skepticism was bolstered by his temporary embrace of Hegelian philosophy, which he learned from his friend McTaggart. (Apparently McTaggart later was to play a role in expelling Russell from Trinity College.) Closer examination of Hegel’s own work, full of confusions, led Russell to renounce this approach. Platonic ideal forms, with mathematics as their representation, offered an alternative refuge. “But in the end I found myself obliged to abandon this doctrine also, and I have never since found religious satisfaction in any philosophical doctrine that I could accept [p. 18].”