Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Portraits From Memory, "Chapter" Seventeen

“Sidney and Beatrice Webb,” pages 105-110

The Webbs were very tightly joined, despite an aversion to a romantic view of marriage. They understood marriage to be instrumental, society’s method to shape instinct within a legal framework. Russell knew Sidney before the marriage, and saw the immense value added to Sidney by Beatrice; Russell oversimplified their collaboration as one where Beatrice developed the ideas and Sidney did the spade work. “He was perhaps the most industrious man that I have ever known [pages 105-106].” Beatrice’s broader interests extended to other human beings, and she was religious though not part of any organized branch of religion. She was brought up by a father committed to Herbert Spencer’s theories of education. Beatrice had a reputation (at least with Bertie’s mum!) as a bit of a social butterfly, and her interest in Fabianism led her to connections with Webb, Shaw, and Graham Wallas. “There was something like the Judgment of Paris with the sexes reversed, and it was Sidney who emerged as the counterpart of Aphrodite [p. 107].” The three rivals and Beatrice together founded the London School of Economics.

Beatrice’s family fortune allowed the Webbs to devote their lives to research and activism; the resulting books, and the London School of Economics, met with great success. Russell “liked and admired [p. 107]” Beatrice, while objecting to some of her political stands. At the core of Fabianism lies State worship. Hence the Webbs (and Bernard Shaw) were overly tolerant of fascism, and admiring of Soviet socialism. The Webbs were “fundamentally undemocratic, and regarded it as the function of a statesman to bamboozle or terrorize the populace [p. 109].”

The Webbs despised H. G. Wells, both because of his flouting of Beatrice’s Victorian-style morality and his competition for leadership of the Fabians. Nor did they care for the first Labour Prime Minister, Ramsay MacDonald. The Webbs were not lifelong Labour supporters, having had early flirtations with both the Conservatives and the Liberals.

They possessed their peculiarities. Mrs. Webb followed a regimen of fasting, which involved her not eating breakfast and having but a small dinner. Sidney used mildly unscrupulous methods to win his point within a committee. Their influence on the Labour Party was similar to the Benthamite influence on the radicals in the 19th Century – their aversion to emotion echoed the Benthamites, too. The Webbs’s rationalism kept the Labour Party from becoming unhinged, to the lasting benefit of democracy in Britain.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Portraits From Memory, "Chapter" Sixteen

Alfred North Whitehead,” pages 99-104

Russell knew Whitehead’s father, a cleric, when Russell was very young. He encountered Whitehead fils (ANW) when Russell matriculated at Cambridge; Whitehead was impressed with the quality of Russell’s entrance examination, and Russell was honored that Whitehead remembered a particular of the exam many months later. Whitehead’s rather harsh criticism of Russell’s dissertation aimed at procuring a Cambridge Fellowship was later explained by it being the last opportunity for ANW to address BR in a teacher-to-pupil manner: Russell was awarded the Fellowship.

Russell and Whitehead collaborated for a decade on mathematics, but their lack of intellectual concord prevented any collaboration on matters philosophical. They disagreed about World War I, and Russell allowed that disagreement to diminish their friendship. Whitehead’s younger son was killed in the fighting towards the end of WWI. Whitehead was devastated and turned more to philosophy, with Kant and Bergson as guides. (Bergson, incidentally, preceded Russell as a Nobel Laureate in Literature.) Whitehead possessed a great breadth of knowledge, encompassing much historical arcana.

Whitehead was so gentle that he was nicknamed “the Cherub” in Russell’s early days at Cambridge. The fact that Whitehead’s Dad was a cleric was not accidental: Whitehead descended from a long line of clerics. Young ANW's upbringing on the Isle of Thanet left a profound influence. “Whitehead’s theological opinions were not orthodox, but something of the vicarage atmosphere remained in his ways of feeling and came out in his later philosophical writings [p. 102].” He was modest as well as gentle.

Whitehead’s powers of concentration were extraordinary, as Russell and Crompton Davies (who appeared in "Chapter" 11) witnessed when ANW was so wrapped up in mathematics that he failed to notice the two of them, standing but a yard away. Whitehead presented a kind and imperturbable face to the world, but he could, indeed, be perturbed. “His devotion to his wife and his children was profound and passionate [p. 103].” He was very hard on himself for his imagined faults.

Whitehead had an agility at inducing committees to see things his way. His administrative acumen was missing one important element, the ability to reliably respond to letters. Russell endorses Whitehead’s explanation for this defect, that answering letters would take him away from producing original work.

Whitehead earns from his pupil Russell the ultimate encomium: “Whitehead was extraordinarily perfect as a teacher….I think that in all the abler young men with whom he came in contact he inspired, as he did in me, a very real and lasting affection [p. 104]."

Monday, March 12, 2012

Portraits From Memory, "Chapter" Fifteen

“George Santayana,” pages 92-98

Russell met Santayana in London in 1893, as Bertie was on the precipice of studying philosophy. Santayana’s parents were Spanish, and though himself raised in Boston, he remained closely connected to, even enamored of, Spain. “Whenever his Spanish patriotism was involved, his usual air of detachment disappeared [pages 92-93].” Mediterraneans, according to Santayana, were the world’s philosophers, those best suited for contemplation. But the philosopher Russell did not mind the condescension, “as my patriotic self-confidence was quite equal to his [p. 93].”

Santayana was calm and precise in his habits. As one might guess from his books, he dressed neatly, even in environs where less formality would have been more suitable. Santayana supported the social and political aspects of Catholicism, though he did not accept Catholic religious beliefs. He was not concerned that the general populace accept true doctrines; rather, he wished for them to adopt “some myth to which he could give aesthetic approval [p. 94].” Santayana and his long-time colleague William James could not get on, presumably for differences in their philosophical outlooks.

Russell also did not rate Santayana highly as a philosopher, though respected his talent for shedding light on unfashionable ideas. Russell felt less respect for Santayana’s extreme reactionary ideas. Santayana had much of the medieval scholastic about him. Santayana asserts without argument, or assumes, matters that require argumentation. His writing style leads to an unthinking acceptance on the part of the reader, whose lack of engagement then renders the material completely forgettable.

Nonetheless, a book by Santayana helped Russell to abandon his Moore-inspired view that good and evil are objective concepts. (The book that Russell references, Winds of Doctrine, contains an extensive chapter entitled "The Philosophy of Mr. Bertrand Russell.") Russell also finds much to approve of in Santayana’s literary criticism. Russell shared some of Santayana’s views of American academic culture, though not the frame of mind that accompanied those views. “Aloofness and facile contempt were his defects, and because of them, although he could be admired, he was a person whom it was difficult to love [p. 97].” Russell quotes Santayana on Russell, concerning how Russell’s intensity of focus loses for him the larger context.

Santayana’s reverence for the calm of the past renders him an enemy to real intellectual progress. “It is for this reason that Santayana’s merits are literary rather than philosophical [p. 98].”

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Portraits From Memory, "Chapter" Fourteen

“Joseph Conrad,” pages 86-91

Russell met Conrad in 1913, and was surprised by his heavily accented English and by an affect which betrayed no hint of matters maritime. “He was an aristocratic Polish gentleman to his finger tips [p. 86].” Conrad had a romantic’s somewhat remote love for the sea – though he took to the English merchant marine at a young age. As Conrad’s books suggest, he did not hold a similar romantic attachment to political revolution. Despite their differing political orientations, Russell and Conrad immediately established a close connection: “...we shared a certain outlook on human life and human destiny, which, from the very first, made a bond of extreme strength [p. 87].”

Conrad’s philosophy seems best expressed in Heart of Darkness. Humans are always near to the breakdown of civilization, morality, and sanity. The recipe to avoid the breakdown is to be disciplined in channeling passions into “a dominant purpose [p. 87].” The discipline, however, must be internally generated, not imposed from without (page 89).

Conrad hated Russia, in a manner traditional for the Polish, but he adored England. Otherwise, he had little interest in politics. His concern was about passionate (and often lonely) individuals in an indifferent or hostile world. Besides loneliness, fear of the unfamiliar is a common Conradian theme. Perhaps as an immigrant in England, Conrad inspired this fear, and felt the resulting loneliness.

The depth of the Russell-Conrad connection, and the speed with which it grew at their initial meeting, verged on the mystical. “The emotion was as intense as passionate love, and at the same time all-embracing [p. 89].” Russell gave his first son the middle name Conrad in recognition of secular godfatherhood.

Russell and Conrad advanced their friendship mainly through correspondence, not face-to-face meetings. Conrad reacted warmly but with reservation about Russell’s book on China – Conrad thought (unlike Russell) that world socialism was unlikely to prove China’s salvation. Russell would prefer for the spirit of Conrad to be more well-known: “his intense and passionate nobility shines in my memory like a star seen from the bottom of a well [p. 91].”