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The Autobiography of Bertrand Russell, 1914-1944

by Bertrand Russell
Atlantic-Little, Brown, 418 pp., $8.95

As there are religious conversions, there must be philosophical conversions also. Since the eighteenth century, philosophy has taken over some part of the ground that once belonged to institutionalized theologies, as a focus of divided feelings. As soon as God is no longer well defined and can be either invented anew or dismissed in each generation, the relation of man as a species to the rest of Nature becomes open ground for philosophy. It is to be expected that natural protestants, who are skeptics, and whose emotions follow their intellect—such men as Hume, Mill, James, Russell—will meet sudden crises of belief, moments of conversion, in which they see Nature as overwhelming them, or as supporting them, or as offering them reconciliation and rest.

Russell’s Autobiography, no less than Mill’s, is clearly constructed around such movements of conversion. It has the form of a pilgrim’s story. The pilgrim progresses through various philosophical trials and uncertainties toward a final resting-place, from which, looking back, we can see his progress as emblematic. In successive episodes of disillusionment, he changes his way. He passes under the influence of men who have shared one or another of the conflicting attitudes to Nature which are present in his own mind, unreconciled. G. E. Moore, Whitehead, Gilbert Murray, D. H. Lawrence, Wittgenstein, each had some role in a crisis of belief, which was at the same time a turning point in a continuous unfolding of unrealized emotions. Alys Russell, Ottoline Morrell, Constance Malleson, Dora Black, are each associated with a new phase of moral commitment or of moral exploration. Every attachment is given a meaning and a direction. The author’s requirement that the phases of his life should all have a legible significance has its natural satisfaction in autobiography. The form allows a signposted story, with clearly marked transitions and conclusions, as in the best Whig histories.

Russell’s original need to understand his place in Nature, and to render some definite account to himself of the value of his existence, has often amounted in its urgency to a kind of rage. His recurring disappointments, as he describes them, became moods of battled fury. If the world will not be as it ought to be, he will imperiously call for an immediate explanation, or he will rail upon it like Timon with an extraordinary energy of pessimism. And then, as the story is told, he is picked up once again, and enabled to continue on his path, by some other superior spirit who equally cannot submit to the tawdry contingencies of a common fortune. Or he may meet on high ground, and with almost wordless understanding, another aristocrat who will neither bend nor break before the wretchedness and triviality of events: this happened with Conrad. The search can then proceed with some relief from loneliness and under a new encouragement.

There is no hint of autobiography as comedy, as in Sartre’s Les Mots. The search is philosophical in the fully traditional sense: there must be a vantage point from which the limits of rational freedom and of useful knowledge will appear necessary, or at least will be explainable and acceptable. Until the vantage point is found, the choice of a way of life must seem arbitrary and unstructured, and this is intolerable. The ordinary flow of events, of marrying, of having children, of making discoveries in mathematics and philosophy, by itself makes no perfect, or even proper, pattern which will satisfy a philosophical temperament. If the play of normal instincts and of their derivatives are to be considered self-justifying, then violence and cruelty have to be accepted as natural necessities. Russell could never so accept them. He has tried to believe that that which is horrible in the actual world is mainly due to a bad system: “tried to believe” only, because he also shares Conrad’s “sense of fatality,” of the incurable disjointedness of human nature and of his own nature.

FOR RUSSELL the great war, and the loyal responses to it throughout Europe, had brought into total discredit the moral systems on which European societies had been based. Philosophy must fill the gap; a rational man must work by himself, an enemy of the crowd, and re-invent morality. In this respect, and particularly in his pejorative use of words like “the system,” he anticipated, as early as 1916, many of the attitudes of radical students today. He called upon moral imagination to undermine that bourgeois authority which requires loyalty in time of war, character-forming discipline in schools, and the repression of sexual variety. These three pillars of decent society are still the targets for attack by the only genuine radicals that we have. And of course Russell has always disdained and rejected the rights of private property, not only in theory, but also in his own practice. He gave his unearned wealth to others.

Russell is very conscious of nobility as a virtue, and of the proper role of a sage, who stands, like Spinoza, alone, near to nature in half-intellectual, half-mystical, understanding and therefore in opposition to society. Again he writes, “Spinoza, always, is right in all these things.” His own nobility is most evident when he is least aware of it. In his second volume there is at least one truly noble episode: his visit to the Soviet Union in 1920. He was hoping that there he would at last find the necessary new, and socialist, society. He felt to the full the temptation to substitute faith for evidence which overwhelmed so many intellectuals after the war. Yet his descriptions of the Soviet Union are painfully truthful, and the seeds of evil in Lenin’s system of government were seen at the very beginning: “I wonder whether it is possible to build a body first, and then afterwards inject the requisite amount of soul. Perhaps, but I doubt it.” The report, sketched here, was made in full in The Practice and Theory of Bolshevism.

In this volume there are very few references to Russell’s strictly philosophical discoveries in the years from 1914 onwards. Yet much of the work critically examined in D. F. Pears’s important book Bertrand Russell and the British Tradition in Philosophy* was published in those years. By 1914 Russell’s principal contributions to logic, as opposed to the theory of knowledge, were already in the past. But he was at least an intermittent source of ideas in metaphysics and in the theory of knowledge until 1940. He had formed, and then had lost, two philosophical friendships which will always be recorded in the history of thought: first, the friendship with Whitehead, from which Principia Mathematica had issued: secondly, the friendship with Wittgenstein, which was associated with the theory of meaning and of truth that was called logical atomism. Both friendships ended in rejection and discouragement. Russell publishes here a rather cold letter from Whitehead in January 1917 which denies Russell the opportunity of seeing Whitehead’s new philosophical work before it was in final form; this letter marked the end of their collaboration.

Far worse for Russell had been the onslaught upon his philosophical abilities by his former pupil, Wittgenstein. In 1916 Russell wrote to Ottoline Morrell: “His criticism…was an event of first-rate importance in my life, and affected everything I have done since. I saw he was right, and I saw that I could not hope ever again to do fundamental work in philosophy. My impulse was shattered, like a wave dashed to pieces against a breakwater. I became filled with despair.” He dryly notes that he soon recovered from the despair; but Wittgenstein had persuaded him “that what wanted doing in logic was too difficult for me. So philosophy lost its hold on me. That was due to Wittgenstein more than to the war.” The criticism had given him “a sense of failure,” because he had always believed that “fundamental work in philosophy” must be logic, in the sense that he had given to this disputed term: that is, an investigation of the possible logical forms, and therefore of the necessary clear syntax, of any propositions that could be assessed as either true or false. Once these concealed logical forms, the deep structure of literal thought, had been clearly distinguished, the traditional questions of metaphysics would, he believed, be exposed to precise answers. Wittgenstein had carried this Russellian program forward to an extreme conclusion in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus: it was a conclusion that Russell could not accept, and could not even find wholly intelligible, although he had arranged for the publication of the book and had written the Introduction to it.

RUSSELL WAS to continue the program for many years, linking the theory of meaning with the theory of knowledge, while Wittgenstein turned along a quite different path. He decided that he and Russell had misconstrued the relation between the abstract structure, which logic, as the theory of mathematical truth, investigates, and the grammar of spoken languages. The theory of meaning must be started again from observation of language as it is. The complex grammar of a natural language cannot be either justified, or corrected, by reference to any deeper principles of sentence-construction which mathematical logic may suggest. The Russellian plan of sketching in outline the forms of a logically clear language which is free from the vagaries of natural grammars must misfire. The forms of natural grammar, carefully described and interpreted without philosophical prejudice, are all in order as they are. The apparent illogicalities and untidinesses of the forms of spoken languages serve their complex functions in making communication possible, much as the apparent illogicalities of social custom can, when properly interpreted, be seen to fulfill a function in holding societies together. A philosopher is in no better position to impose, in the name of rationality, a simplified syntax on natural languages than is a social anthropologist to impose simplified patterns of behavior on the society that he studies: in both cases the first duty of the inquirer is to respect the complexity of the facts, with the belief that the complexity serves a purpose, and that it has a natural explanation. But for Russell, in all things a reformer, philosophy loses its sharp edge and purpose as an inquiry if it is not a recasting of the customs and institutions of language for the sake of greater clarity and distinctness of statement.

Soon after the war, he was therefore alone as a philosopher, without collaborators; and one may even find a desultoriness and lack of full conviction in his later work in the theory of knowledge, which now looks more like a chaos of clear ideas than the confident working out of a program. He had lost contact with later discoveries in the philosophy of mathematics, and he was altogether out of sympathy with the descriptive philosophies of language which Wittgenstein and others were developing.

This second volume is haphazardly put together from letters with scattered commentary and occasional shreds of narrative. The prodigious richness and variety of Russell’s interests and achievements in these years—the life of four men—are implied rather than presented: the method is one of glimpses. Marriage to Dora Black, the visit to China, a civilization in which, as an aristocrat and a rationalist, he was at home, and to Japan, where he could hear no echoes of the eighteenth century and where he was not at home; the birth of a son, and the revolution of feeling which this entailed; the foundation with Dora Russell of the famous free school; the finely written money-earning books on morals and marriage and happiness and education, and the conquest of a large public; the primitive, ridiculous “hue and cry” raised in America when, a notorious immoralist, he accepted academic appointments here. The episodes flash by, and the reader has to fill them in with his imagination.

There are incidental pleasures in the author’s irony. For instance, a wonderfully typical letter from Professor Hocking at Harvard about Harvard’s difficulties is printed—typical, that is, of the prudent and moderate academic mind’s reaction whenever a hue and cry is raised, balancing pro and con with no sense of the absurd. Although Russell felt humiliation, or at least a poisoning sense of disgust, in America in the years just before and during the war, he knew that he had achieved much of his ambition, which, apart from philosophy and mathematics, was “to change people’s thoughts”: “power over people’s minds is the main personal desire of my life.” After the discouragements from Whitehead and Wittgenstein, he had seen himself as “starting on a new career…. I have something important to say on the philosophy of life and politics, something appropriate to the times.”

IIN FACT Russell’s “philosophy of life,” so often and clearly defined, has not been appropriate to the times, at least since the first war. He has not been involved in, or greatly affected by, new tendencies in philosophy, psychology, literature, or in political and historical thought, except when they complemented an intellectual attitude which he had already formed before 1920. His “philosophy of life” has rather served as a reminder of better times, when starvation and physical suffering were admittedly even more widespread that they now are, but when genocide and the destructions of war were less terrible, and less high-minded in intention, than in this century. It is a repeated theme of his that “the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were a brief interlude in the normal savagery of man; now the world has reverted to its usual condition. For us, who imagined ourselves democrats, but were in fact the pampered products of aristocracy, it is unpleasant”: or again “for the next 1000 years people will look back to the time before 1914 as they did in the Dark Ages to the time before the Gauls sacked Rome.”

The poison of disgust is produced by that particular mixture of vulgar, democratic, and dull self-righteousness with mechanical barbarity which he, like the radical students, finds in contemporary American policies: all sides of his nature are offended equally. Judged by the standards of the society that is described in the Amberley Papers, the pseudo-species, pale-faced man, has been, first steadily, and then precipitately, going downhill since 1914, in the sense that the horizon of expected improvement has contracted. It was possible to believe before 1914, and perhaps for a few years after the first war, that this pseudo-species was endowed with an adaptive intelligence that was sufficient to find the right social forms for reinforcing the general stock of intelligence. J. S. Mill rested his philosophy upon this belief, which he did not seriously question. Russell was never a Comtean optimist by temperament, and his doubts have grown stronger and stronger over the years. From his very early years he had reasons in his own experience for sharing Conrad’s “deep-seated sense of fatality governing this man-inhabited world.” This sense of fatality is “the something else” which he has always been half saying even while he writes of reform and improvement, and which permitted his intimate friendships with Conrad and with T. S. Eliot.

This is nevertheless an autobiography that celebrates an extraordinary confidence in self-determination and in the efficacy of the conscious mind. There is no suggestion that the purposes of rational men are commonly cross-purposes, and of the compulsion to repeat patterns of behavior; therefore a life can be seen as a progress and as a learning by experience, almost as if it were a scientific inquiry. That element in human behavior which makes puppets plausible is nowhere represented: the limited repertory of expression and gesture, the disconnections and abrupt reversals, and the expected repetitions. The confession of a static, absurdly contrived nature which is delightful to some philosophers, such as Sartre, who are obsessed with the contingency of any individual’s interests, is not permissible in Russell, for whom there must always be freely willed development, and true self-assertion.

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    Random House, $5.95

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