You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Knowledge and Acquaintance: On Bertrand Russell

Review of Bertrand Russell: The Spirit of Solitude, 1872-1921 by Ray Monk

It was said of the sixth Baron Byron that he “wielded his pen with the easy negligence of a nobleman.” So did the third Earl Russell, whose writing combined exuberant panache with genuine intellectual depth. He wrote copiously and persuasively for more than seventy years, on subjects as different as Ronsard’s poetry, Chinese politics and Greek philosophy. He was fluent and witty even when tacking back and forth between English prose and the crabbed symbolism of mathematical logic, a symbolism that he helped to invent.

Byron wielded his sexual organs as he did his quill, and, reading Ray Monk’s biography, one might be tempted to say that Russell did the same. Monk has done a lot of detective work. He has discovered that Russell’s sex life was more varied, more devious and more duplicitous than one would guess from his Autobiography. But Russell took his sexual partners a lot more seriously than did Byron. His relations with women seem to have followed the same pattern as with men: he was constantly looking for somebody wonderful and astonishing, somebody who would change his life. If they were women, he would often go to bed with them. But not if they were men: this must be one the few recent biographies to offer no revelations of homosexual yearnings.

Russell’s intense enthusiasms usually did not last. On first encountering G. E. Moore, Joseph Conrad, Alys Pearsall Smith (his first wife), D. H. Lawrence, Ottoline Morrell or Wittgenstein, he would become convinced that he had met someone immensely superior to himself, intellectually, morally, or both. But he would then decide, often fairly quickly, that he had been wrong. To a few people—Conrad, for example—he remained a good friend and a loyal admirer over the years. Many others must have wondered why he was now so ready to dismiss them with a witty phrase, when he had been all over them last month, or last year. It would be an overstatement to say that Russell was either at your feet or at your throat, but reading Monk’s biography makes it clear that he had a tendency to think that people were either glorious or useless.

Russell spent his 30s and 40s on the fringes of Bloomsbury, in the days when (or so it now seems) most of the artistically or intellectually gifted members of the English middle and upper classes knew one another and conversed and corresponded incessantly. This first volume of Monk’s projected two-volume biography stops in 1921, and thus covers Russell’s Bloomsbury period. It will attract, and gratify, at least two sorts of readers: people who find Bloomsbury endlessly fascinating, and philosophy buffs.

I share Monk’s fascination with Bloomsbury, but I am slightly ashamed of it. I am not sure that I ought to be as interested as I am in the tangled sexual and intellectual connections among the members of that set. Why am I so intrigued by Monk’s discovery that Russell cuckolded his friend T. S. Eliot, as well as his teacher and collaborator Alfred North Whitehead? After all, I do not believe that, as Virginia Woolf famously claimed, human nature changed “on or about December 1910.” Moreover, I find the first half of the twentieth century blurring together with the last half of the nineteenth century: Aldous Huxley and F. Scott Fitzgerald begin to look more like William Dean Howells than like Thomas Pynchon, Proust more like Balzac than like Bernhard. A dawning realization that I have no idea what “postmodernism” means has led me to wonder whether I ever knew what I meant by “modernism,” and why I still assume that it was bliss to be alive in the days that Monk describes.

My hunch is that it is with books about Bloomshury as it is (or so am I told) with string quartets: the audience is getting steadily older and dwindling. My own generation, the one which was young in the ‘40s and ‘50s, grew up believing that the possibilities of intellectual and emotional life had been changed by Darwin, Marx and Freud, that the twentieth century really was going to be wonderfully different from the century that preceded it, that Eliot, Woolf and Proust showed us how great that difference could be. Those of use for whom these latter writers were paradigmatic may be the only people still willing to shell out money for biographies of Lytton Strachey or Vita Sackville-West.

And this may be the case even for biographies of Moore or Russell, and maybe even Wittgenstein. It is possible that Monk—whose biography of Russell is just as thoroughly researched and as engrossing as the stunning biography of Wittgenstein that made him famous five years ago—had published his book in the nick of time. If you consider Moore and Russell outside of their piquant Bloomsbury-cum-Cambridge ambiance, simply as figures in the history of philosophy, they do not look nearly as important as they once did. Wittgenstein’s stock is still as high as ever, but this is at least partly because nobody is quite sure what the man actually said. There are as many versions of Wittgenstein on the market these days as there are of Plato or of Hegel. Moore and Russell, by contrast, really are as unambiguous and straightforward as they prided themselves on being. So it is much easier to find them obsolete.

Monk is steeped in philosophy and he seems to have no doubt that his subjects did epoch-making philosophical work. His biographies do an admirable job of integrating the details of their subjects’ philosophical work with the rest of their lives, their thrilling philosophical discoveries with the other sorts of thrills they experienced. “One cannot understand him [Russell],” Monk writes “without understanding the role played in his life and in his imagination by his hopes for philosophy. And one cannot begin to understand that without some understanding of the philosophy itself.”

Monk certainly has a point. It you write a biography of a person much of whose life was devoted to solving problems in a certain special area, you have a tremendous advantage if you are thoroughly familiar with that area. The best biographies of physicists are usually written by physicists, the best biographies of movie stars by people who have helped to make movies. Still, when curt equations begin appearing in the former, or detailed discussion of the comparative merits of camera booms in the latter, leaders start to skim. Our interest in heroic figures such as Niels Bohr or Marlene Dietrich may not bold up under the pressure of too many, or too minute details.

When it comes to biographies of philosophers, things get complicated. Some philosophers—Plato, Hobbes, Nietzsche, Kuhn—put forward philosophical views whose point is pretty clear right off the bat. The pragmatist’s question—“What difference will it make to practice if this philosophical claim is true?”—is fairly easy to answer when it comes to Plato on the nature of the soul, or Hobbes on sovereignty, or Nietzsche on slave-morality, or Kuhn on the nature of theory-choice in science. If you accept what those philosophers have to say on those subjects, it may well change your intellectual habits and your self-image. You can get the point of their philosophical initiatives even if you skim over some of the technicalities.

When you read, on the other hand, about that wonderful morning when Kant woke up to the realization that “exists” is not a predicate, or the momentous day when it dawned on Russell that classes are logically prior to numbers, or the epochal week in which Wittgenstein realized that a logically perspicuous language would contain no terms which designate relations, your blood may not run quite so fast. You may have to suppress a “so what?” You would have to have worried a lot about the ontological argument for the existence of God to understand why Kant got so excited. You would have to care somewhat about Kant’s claim that arithmetic and geometry are based on non-empirical forms of sensory intuition to be turned on by Russell’s The Principles of Mathematics. In such cases, if you do not get the technicalities, you get nothing.

Philosophy professors, of course, get excited by the technicalities. They are our meat and drink. For us, Monk cannot provide too many details. But most of us would be reluctant to insist that any self-respecting intellectual ought to share our professional thrills. Similarly, economics professors might think that any self-respecting voter has a duty to hold some views on economic policy, but concede that the general public is excused to follow the debate between the followers of Keynes and the followers of Friedman. No doubt any self respecting human being should have a worldview, but he or she may be excused from most of the debates (over, say, the validity of the ontological argument) between Descartes and Hume, or between Kant and Hegel. (The ontological argument, you may recall from Philosophy 101, says that since God is the most perfect being, and since it is more perfect to exist than not to, God necessarily exists. Another version says that God is that being whose very essence is existence, so the suggestion that he does not exist is self-contradictory. If existence, as Kant thought, is not a predicate, this argument doesn’t work. Russell once thought that it did work, but he later developed a new and original explanation of why it didn’t work, an explanation that involved the creation of a new, and very fruitful, set of logical symbols.)

Still, Russell is arguably the most influential philosopher to have written in English in this century. Dewey and Kuhn are the only plausible rivals for this position. Surely Russell must have said something—and something distinctly philosophical—which it behooves everybody, not just the professionals, to know? Maybe, but I am not sure what it was, and I doubt that Monk is, either.

Russell was very influential in his capacity (as Monk puts it) as a nineteenth-century Whig. A godson of John Stuart Mill and a grandson of Lord John Russell—he was born in l872—Russell updated and enlarged the liberalism of these two great Victorians for the benefit of twentieth-century audiences. He made a big difference to public opinion on a lot of social and political questions, and he did a great deal of good. But his views on moral, social and political questions, and on the meaning of life, have nothing at all to do with the work which made Russell philosophically influential. If he bad not written technical books such as The Principles of Mathematics and An Inquiry into Meaning and Truth, nobody would think of him as a great philosopher any more than we think of R. H. Tawney or Walter Lippmann under that description.

Russell created what has come to be called “analytic philosophy”—still the dominant tradition among the anglophones—by convincing a lot of his contemporaries of two theses: that, as he said, “logic is the essence of philosophy,” and that all knowledge is founded in a specially simple and direct sort of knowing, called knowing by acquaintance. Many people entering on the study of philosophy in the 1930s and 1940s (including me) were convinced of the truth of these two theses, many of them by A.J. Ayer’s Language, Truth and Logic, which appeared in 1936. Ayer was Russell’s bulldog, in the sense in which Huxley was Darwin’s. His book had the largest sales of any English-language philosophical treatise prior to Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revelations.

By 1960, however, neither of Russell’s central theses looked remotely plausible to most anglophone philosophers (who continued to call themselves “analytical,” for lack of any better ideas or to excuse their failure to read Hegel and Heidegger). Analytic philosophy not only turned against its principal founder, but analytic philosophers began to profess incomprehension about how anybody as smart as Russell could ever have been foolish enough to hold his absurd views. The work of Willard V.O. Quine and Wilfrid Sellars contributed to this switch. Quine criticized the distinction between formal, conceptual, analytic truths and material, empirical and synthetic truths as a hangover of the Aristotelian essentialism that Russell had repudiated. Sellars demolished the idea of knowledge by acquaintance; he distinguished between impacts on our sense organs and the judgment formed by language users (and only by language users) as a result of those impacts. The real turning point, however, was the posthumous publication of Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations in 1954. In that book, Wittgenstein ridiculed most of the doctrines that he and Russell had joined in promulgating. Since the Investigations, much of that anglophone philosophy has been a competition to see who can offer the most radical and thoroughgoing criticisms of Russell.

A brief history of analytic philosophy would show it marching briskly and triumphantly up the hill during the first half of this century, and marching down again, with equal bravura, during the second half. As the next century dawns, it is not at all clear, especially to many bemused non-anglophone philosophers, that analytic philosophy still has a direction and a momentum. It has repudiated all the Russellian doctrines which made it seem so promising in the ‘30s and ‘40s, and it is not obvious what has been put in their place. Since the anti-empiricism and the anti-foundationalism on which analytic philosophers now pride themselves was taken for granted by nineteenth-century anglophone philosophers such as T.H. Green and Bernard Bosanquet, one might be tempted to say that analytic philosophy was a century-long waste of time.

But that would be a mistake. One learns a lot by trying out an exciting new suggestion about what a discipline, or a genre, or a society, or a self might become, even if one eventually concludes that the suggestion will not pan out. Russell had a vision of philosophy as detecting logical structures hidden behind the ordinary use of language. Those structures, once revealed, would show us what concepts really are, what we are really talking about, as well as what inferences are valid. Uncovering these structures, he thought, would let us see through sophistries such as the ontological argument. It was a beautiful vision, but it depended on discovering some ultimate simples into which all concepts, and therefore all judgments, could be decomposed. Those simples were known, Russell believed, “by acquaintance,” through sensory intuition or (in the case of mathematical and logical concepts) intellectual intuition.

Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations made fun of the very idea of knowledge by acquaintance, and of the claim that an hitherto undetected logic underlay our use of language. Nothing, Wittgenstein said, was hidden; philosophical problems are not to be solved, but dissolved. There is no great constructive work to be done by finding simples and showing how complexes can be constructed out of them.

Wittgenstein’s posthumous book drove Russell up the wall. By the time it appeared Russell was in his 80s, and not about to start all over again. Anybody who acquiesced in Wittgenstein’s volte-face, he snarled, was giving up philosophy, responsibility and probably moral decency as well. But Russell was not too old to put Wittgenstein in his place. Comparing Wittgenstein’s abandonment of what Russell considered to be the only decent sort of philosophy with Pascal’s abandonment of mathematics and Tolstoy’s abandonment of fiction, he said that

Wittgenstein, who could play with metaphysical intricacies as cleverly as Pascal with hexagons or Tolstoy with emperors, threw away this talent and debased himself before common sense as Tolstoy debased himself before peasants—in each case from an impulse of pride. I admired Wittgenstein’s Tractatus but not his later work, which seemed to me to involve an abnegation of his own best talent very similar to those of Pascal and Tolstoy.

This is the sort of riposte we all hope we may still be able to write at the age of 85. It is also a very acute comparison. Wittgenstein was a great admirer of Tolstoy, and (as Monk’s biography showed in detail) he was easily a match for Tolstoy in his willingness to do absolutely anything to improve his own image of himself in his own eyes, no matter what the cost to previous commitments, or to his friends.

In the same article that I have just quoted, Russell noted that the then current generation of Oxford philosophers (John Urmson, Geoffrey Warnock, Peter Strawson, Gilbert Ryle) “in a number of works which, I am told, have merit” had “set forth a number of arguments against my views and methods.” But, he continued, “I have been unable to see any validity in their criticisms of me.” He thought the metaphysical intricacies that he had unraveled thanks to the new symbolic logic that he helped to invent were there. They were not created, as the younger Oxford philosophers claimed, by the misuse of philosophical language; they were built into the structure of reality. The later work of Wittgenstein and his disciples, Russell insisted, was a manifestation of laziness rather than of perspicacity.

Despite the widespread view that Wittgenstein, Quine and Sellars had undermined his logical atomism, Russell never gave up on his early claim that his way of doing philosophy had made it possible for philosophy, for the first time in history, to become a science. He continued to believe what he had claimed in 1914: that his work had made possible “the same kind of advance as was introduced into physics by Galileo: the substitution of piecemeal, detailed and verifiable results for large untested generalities recommended only by a certain appeal to the imagination.”

The question of whether there is any such thing as rendering a discipline scientific cuts to the heart of the question of whether Russell made an enduring contribution to philosophy. If, as Kuhn and his followers have suggested, we have no very clear, rigorous or scientific criteria for the application of the term “scientific clarity and rigor,” no criteria which abstract from the current state of a given discipline and apply to all disciplines at all historical periods, then the case for Russell’s importance is weakened. For Russell believed that he had finally, for good and all, done what Kant had tried and failed to do: set philosophy on the secure path of a science.

Kuhn taught us to treat claims of scientificity sociologically rather than epistemologically. He said that one mark of what he called “normal science” is the existence of a disciplinary matrix built around respect for a paradigmatic achievement. Within such a matrix, there is general agreement among inquirers about who is doing promising work, who deserves the big prizes, and so on. There is also agreement on who has achieved “piecemeal, detailed and verifiable results.” Still, Kuhn went on to say, there is also revolutionary science, which is the sort of science you get when it is not yet clear whether some bold new innovator is a genius or a kook, and there are several competing disciplinary matrices around, so that which one you wind up working within depends upon which graduate school, or mentor, yon happen to pick.

When a new achievement begins to make it look as if the old paradigmatic achievements will have to be rethought— when paradigms collide—the Old Guard and the Young Turks no longer agree on what constitutes promising work, or even on what constitutes scientific clarity and rigor. From then on, until a new, unchallenged, post-revolutionary disciplinary matrix gets established, until all the Aristotelians have died out and been replaced with Galileans, or all the Galenic doctors have sold their practices to followers of Harvey, you cannot get a consensus on what is science and what is not, on which terminology is clear and which arguments are rigorous. Nor can you get a consensus on whether something is a verifiable result or an obsolete piece of rubbish.

Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations engendered a philosophical revolution.It insinuated that most of whatboth Russell and Wittgenstein himself(in his first book, the Tractalus Logico-Philosophicus) had, circa 1920, taken asdefinite verifiable results were really obsoleterubbish. We anglophone philosophersare still living within the new disciplinarymatrix created by that revolution.And for as long as we are living in it, the consensus about Russell is likely to be that he was brilliantly, charmingly, provocatively and profoundly wrong.

When Russell decided that philosophy consisted in logical analysis, and that the new logic he had helped invent would make a new way of doing philosophy possible, Russell created a new and exciting matrix. He thereby brought about a revolution in Anglophone philosophy one which lasted for decades, but was itself crushed by Wittgenstein’s counterrevolution. To most non-anglophone philosophers, however, the entire century of philosophical work which ensued upon Russell’s attempt to revive British empiricism, including the pro-empiricist revolution of the first fifty years and the anti-empiricist counterrevolution of the second fifty years, looks oddly parochial. The preeminent philosophers of other lands, such as Gadamer, Derrida and Vattimo, are baffled by the importance that their British and American colleagues attribute to Russell and Wittgenstein. They see the fabled “rigor and clarity” of philosophy as it is practiced at Oxford or Harvard as most analytic philosophers see philosophy as performed in Paris: it looks local, quaint, pointless.

It is possible, of course, that this most recent revolution in anglophone philosophical opinion, the one which resulted from Wittgenstein’s criticism of his Tractatus inhis Investigations, is itself just another flash in the pan. It is even possible that some neo-Russellian attempt to revitalize British empiricism may take the world by storm, and thereby succeed in bridging the abyss which presently separates “analytical” from “Continental” philosophy. John McDowell’s recent and much-discussed Mind and World is such an attempt, in which he tried heroically to combine the best of Russell with the best of Hegel. McDowell would like to rehabilitate knowledge by acquaintance by breaking down the traditional distinction between the conceptual and the sensory. This might just work. Stranger peripities have occurred in the history of philosophy.

At the moment though, there seems little reason to agree with Monk that Russell, during the years described in this first volume, was doing epoch-making philosophical work. Historians are more likely to describe him not as the Galileo of his discipline, but as the founder of a relatively short-lived and provincial school of thought.