Friday, January 20, 2012

Portraits From Memory, End of the First Period

Portraits From Memory lends itself, as did Education and the Good Life, to tripartite division, so we will adopt again the ice hockey approach of two intervals. The first period opens with an autobiographical essay, and “chapters” two through nine offer expansions on themes introduced in that initial chapter. These themes include Russell’s lonely existence as a youth in a repressive atmosphere, the liberating power of Cambridge and mathematics, a trio of turning points, constancy in many matters of opinion, and constancy, too, though at times wavering, in an optimistic outlook on humanity.

The three key moments seem to have been an intellectual epiphany in 1901, the onset of World War I, and a visit to Russia in 1920. We don’t learn anything about the precipitating events for the 1901 turnabout, but the others arise in part through Russell’s personal observations of a pathological public war lust and a hatred-motivated Bolshevik leadership. The common problem is dogmatism; Russell would prefer not to be a contrarian, but the global conditions often have demanded that he be out of step with public opinion. World War I cements Russell’s commitment to improving society through means of political activity, though he is also at an age (over 40) when most mathematicians have already seen a marked decline in their creative powers. (The Prospero-like abandonment of his mathematics books in the early twentieth century was perhaps a bit premature, though it didn’t prevent Russell from co-authoring Principia Mathematica.) The literary public intellectual side of Russell then takes center stage, though it had long been extant: his first book, published in 1896, was German Social Democracy.

Those elements of Russell’s political outlook that remained constant are ones that I still find admirable: the anti-dogmatism, the commitment to personal liberty, the unwillingness to bend to power. One must be realistic, facts cannot be ignored. “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].” I also sympathize with his inability to align himself wholeheartedly with any of the standard political parties.

The fact that Russell laid out an intellectual work plan when he was nineteen, one that he essentially stuck to for the rest of his life, is pretty amazing. And those books that he feared would have no impact – well, they are still being read some seventy years later, alongside only a tiny percentage of the productions of his contemporaries. But we already knew he was remarkable.

Finally, Russell’s praise of Wittgenstein is such an encomium it makes me want to learn more about Russell’s student and colleague: “…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].”

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