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].”

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