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The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner

Bertrand Russell: The Spirit of Solitude, 1872-1921

by Ray Monk
Free Press, 695 pp., $35.00

Bertrand Russell lived until the age of ninety-eight, and at the end of the six hundred pages of the first volume of Ray Monk’s biography he is only forty-nine. Yet Monk is a pleasantly economical writer and at no point does the story drag or seem unnecessarily drawn out. The length is justified, for Russell was an articulate genius who followed several independent careers, each fully documented, even in this first half of his life.

He was not only a compulsive writer, outgoing and fluent, but a particularly compulsive writer about himself. From his early youth onward, he kept up a running commentary on his development, his emotions, his virtues, and his failings, and on his intellectual projects and ambitions. He continued to talk to himself about himself, as he had done as an orphaned child in the garden of his grandmother’s house, Pembroke Lodge, where he was brought up. His extrovert brother, Frank, accounted him “a prig” because of his separateness.

Much of this autobiographical material survives in the vast accumulation of letters to friends and to lovers, particularly in the two thousand or so letters to Ottoline Morrell, the deepest and most long-lasting of his attachments. Monk estimates that Russell could rarely have passed a day without writing, in one form or another, at least two or three thousand words. He evidently hated to destroy his written words; he kept everything.

The whole story of his life eventually came to an end in the Russell Archives at McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario, which every Russell biographer must now visit. There is even an embarrassment of riches in this record, because Russell so eagerly provides in his letters and memoirs the dramatic turning points, the epiphanies and metaphysical revelations, which add splendor and excitement to the story. He was always composing his own legend, and he designed his life as the proper path of genius, stressing always his perpetual sense of isolation from the ordinary ranks of humanity, who would not understand the craving for perfection, a craving which he found could be satisfied only in mathematics.

Following in Russell’s footsteps, as to some extent he must, Monk is suitably dry in tone, and sometimes even explicitly skeptical, especially when recording Russell’s soulful epiphanies and self-revelations. Russell obviously adapted his rhetoric to fit particular correspondents, and Ottoline Morrell received letters expressing his grandest religious or metaphysical flights, having strong religious feelings herself and an inclination toward the mystical romanticism that Lawrence satirized in Women in Love. “What holds me to you for ever and ever is religion. Everybody else hurts me by lack of reverence,” Russell wrote to Ottoline Morrell while he was involved in an affair with Constance Malleson. “In a gay boyish mood I got intimate with Constance Malleson, but she doesn’t suit serious moods.” One would have guessed that this was written by H.G. Wells, but Russell, majestic in his intellect, did often cause his friends, including Ottoline Morrell, to shudder at his insensitivity and his lack of gentleness and subtlety. Explicitness, Russell’s great strength, in these contexts is often ugly. Monk certainly does present Russell in the round and the reader is made to see his falseness as well as his greatness.

Superbly clear and spare in serious (his word) philosophy, as well as in his political and social philosophy and his popular journalism, Russell’s writing becomes tawdry and second-hand when he assumes the posture of Spinoza’s heir, lofty, disillusioned, world-despising, profound, pure, as in “The Free Man’s Worship,” a work strangely admired by Lytton Strachey. Monk quotes some appalling passages. Looking at the Thames from his study window, Russell tells a friend, “I see far below me the busy world hurrying east and west, and I feel infinitely remote from their little hopes and fears. But beyond, borne on the flowing tide of the river, the sea-gulls utter their melancholy cry, full of the infinite sadness of the sea; above Orion and the Pleiades shine undisturbed. They are my true comrades, they speak a language that I understand, and with them I find a home: rest and peace are with the calm strength of nature.”

This “fine” writing with its sub-Stevensonian style permeates many of the love letters that Monk quotes, often to the embarrassment of the reader, who may feel himself an intruder and out of place. Aldous Huxley somewhere remarked that Goethe regarded his successive love affairs as stretching exercises for the soul, and Russell similarly thought of his marriages and his other attachments as marking stages in his carefully monitored development or “pilgrimage.” Reading Monk, one cannot avoid stumbling on these depressing features of a truly great man, just as many of his contemporaries did, including G.E. Moore and Ottoline Morrell, who finally found his unalterable “self-absorption,” his lack of charm and of lightness of spirit, his hardness, repellent.

But all this is swept aside by the magnificent and continuous story of his struggles to think and always to think more profoundly, clearly, and comprehensively. The “intellectual honeymoon” and “the highest point of my life” came during his first, and ultimately unhappy, marriage to Alys Pearsall Smith. He thought at that time that he had finally found the way to analyze the fundamental notions of mathematics, such as order and cardinal numbers, by tracing them back to a few primary notions of logic. With Whitehead as collaborator he entered a long tunnel of intensive and intricate work on the derivations of mathematical concepts in Principia Mathematica. He did not emerge for ten years and at the end he felt exhausted and intellectually drained. “It is amusing to think,” he wrote, “how much time and trouble has been spent on small points in obscure corners of the book, which possibly no human being will ever discover.” He claimed that he used to know of six persons who had read the later parts of the book, three Poles and three Texans, all of whom had disappeared.

Within the story of Russell’s thought the key word was always “analyze.” For him analysis, that is, the resolution of complex problems into their simple elements, complex thoughts into simple thoughts, was the only path to clear thinking and also to a true understanding of reality. Analysis was for him the natural movement of the liberated intellect, patient and detached. He had arrived at this faith in his reaction against the neo-Hegelian philosophy dominant at the turn of the century, represented in England by F.H. Bradley, whom Russell admired in spite of the illogicalities of his logic. In his view, Hegel and his followers had had nothing useful, or even intelligent, to say about the nature of mathematics; and the theory that the truth of a true belief consisted in its coherence within an all-inclusive system of beliefs seemed obviously in conflict with the step-by-step nature of mathematical reasoning, moving from proposition to proposition in a linear style.

Russell therefore looked back to Leibniz, the subject of his first purely philosophical published work, because Leibniz had presented the analysis of propositions into their constituent elements as the only path to truth in metaphysics as in mathematics. In the 1920s, as a thoroughgoing empiricist, Russell embarked on a lifelong philosophical program of analyzing our complex knowledge of the world into its ultimate simple fragments, which are to be found in perceptual experience. This was the vastly influential project in the theory of knowledge which for many years came to be identified with analytical philosophy everywhere in the English-speaking world. According to this view, claims to knowledge in the natural sciences, together with ordinary claims to common-sense knowledge, are shown to be valid and acceptable only if they can be traced by philosophers to their foundations in direct experience.

The metaphor of foundations was from the beginning a motivating force in Russell’s thinking: first, applied to the foundations of mathematics, then to the foundations of empirical knowledge. The rejection of this metaphor, the conclusion that neither mathematics nor empirical knowledge had any foundations at all, and the denial that they needed foundations, was Wittgenstein’s drastic intervention in Russell’s life, from which Russell was never fully to recover. From 1922 onward he followed his program of “serious philosophy” only intermittently and with diminished confidence as he turned more and more to topics of “human interest, like bad philosophers, only without being bad,” as he put it.

Wittgenstein proved in the long run to have been the greatest single influence on Russell’s life. The very sad end of the story of their intellectual friendship, of the final breach and disillusionment, will only come in Monk’s next volume. Here there is a moving account of the early meetings and collaboration in Cambridge between the fiercely destructive young philosophical genius from Vienna and his mentor, of Wittgenstein’s uneasy relations with Maynard Keynes and the Cambridge Apostles, and of his increasingly radical subversion of Russell’s program of analysis. Wittgenstein never believed that there could be such a strict discipline as the theory of knowledge. During the First World War, while Wittgenstein was a prisoner of war in Italy after fighting in the Austrian army, Russell was becoming a national figure of radical resistance, and the leader of left-wing causes, making antiwar speeches across the country; and because of his speeches he finally went, not too unhappily, to prison.

Wittgenstein returned from his unpolitical prison in Italy with the manuscript of the book that became the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, which was explicitly designed to put an end to philosophy of all kinds, not excluding Russell’s analytical philosophy. Russell found a publisher for the book, which he only half understood, and he wrote an introduction, from which Wittgenstein dissociated himself. Russell was magnanimous and disinterested in his friendship, recognizing the sweeping ambition and brilliance of Wittgenstein’s work, although he came to hate its conclusions. But the friendship was in any case doomed, because Wittgenstein had no sympathy with Russell’s radical politics or with his popular philosophizing in general.

For many years, largely because of Wittgenstein, Russell’s enormous energies were directed principally toward social and political reform. But still, in an impressive set of lectures delivered in 1918 under the title “The Philosophy of Logical Atomism,” Russell declared: “The chief thesis I have to maintain is the legitimacy of analysis.” When he imagined himself standing beside the great philosophers of the past, particularly Leibniz and Spinoza, as he sometimes did, he saw himself as revealing the deep structure of reality not, like his predecessors, by uncontrolled metaphysical speculation, but by developing a new and carefully analyzed language which would be more logically coherent, and more free from anomalies, than any natural language.

This logically reformed language would reproduce both the order of our experience and the different levels of our knowledge. So philosophy, conceived as the analytical theory of knowledge, would remain a rigorous discipline, at least somewhat analogous to mathematics, and therefore a source of truth and of knowledge independent of natural sciences. As Wittgenstein’s thought developed in the years before the Second World War, the program of Russell’s analytical theory of knowledge was being gradually undermined everywhere, and even those empiricists who, like Rudolf Carnap in Vienna, continued the search for a logically perfect structure of language, no longer described this search as a guide to reality. Philosophy could only investigate methods of representation and could offer no independent guide to reality, independent, that is, of experimental science.

Russell would never accept this confinement of philosophy, this discarding of ambitions which Wittgenstein and Carnap were proposing. The history of this philosophical conflict has often been told, but reading one more life of Russell, and his own reflections, convinces me that it is not usually told altogether fairly. Russell’s picture of the great philosophers, with Leibniz and himself among them, is a picture of men standing above, and on the margin of, the world, free to evaluate their own claims to knowledge from this superior standpoint. Kant had qualified this picture by presenting human beings as, in one aspect, natural objects to be seen interacting with other natural objects and, in another aspect, as free agents transcending the natural order. But Russell could never take Kant’s philosophy seriously, because it presupposed an obviously unacceptable account of the relation of geometry to physics, and of physics itself.

Russell therefore was not troubled by the ambiguous role of human beings who confirm as rational all, and only, those methods of investigation which they know nature by its own agency has instilled into them. After Russell, many philosophers in the analytic tradition began to argue that the standards of rationality in science are no more than human habits which are open to empirical and historical study like any other natural phenomena; and these habits could have no ultimate and permanent justification in timeless philosophy. All his life Russell confronted this argument, essentially Hume’s argument, and he never found a way around it. Because as a young man, and unlike Hume, he had been overwhelmed by the beauty of logical and mathematical systems, and by their independence from petty human concerns, he could not bear to think of reason and rationality as anything other than transcendent powers, giving access to an unchanging and a better world. He could not easily acknowledge that the canons of rationality and the standards of acceptable science are in principle subject to change, and that they have a history like all other human habits, habits that in time become self-confirming institutions.

In this volume Monk has brought Russell to the end of the detested war, to the end of his imprisonment for sedition, and to the end of his most glorious period of philosophical invention. Russell had endured some immensely honorable defeats, as with Whitehead and Russell’s Principia Mathematica, which finally fell short of its target of proving that classical mathematics could be derived from a few primary propositions of logic. A fatal flaw revealed itself in the derivations, and Russell for some years struggled unsuccessfully to patch it up. The German logician Gottlob Frege, whose greatness Russell immediately recognized, had discovered the same flaw. Between them they opened a path for the alliance between philosophy and mathematical logic; but others, notably Kurt Gödel and Alfred Tarski, were to take over at a technical level the further extension of this path.

The end of this volume records another of Russell’s many-sided accomplishments: his visit to the Soviet Union in 1920 and his immediate and yet mature vision of the evils of Leninism. His denunciation of Soviet communism in The Practice and Theory of Bolshevism (1920) counts as an achievement of clear-sightedness, because in the next twenty years no other socialist intellectual in Britain, except Leonard Woolf, was as forceful and uncompromising in declaring that if Lenin represented socialism, he would have none of it. Russell had gone to Russia strongly predisposed to welcome Soviet communism, having argued that “Capitalism and the wage system [are] twin monsters which are eating up the world.” But he was immediately outraged by the cruelty and tyranny which he saw there: the regime was “unspeakably horrible.”

His second wife, Dora Black, had all the beliefs and attitudes of the radical left intelligentsia of the immediate postwar years, including sympathy with Soviet Russia as possibly a “new civilization,” as the Webbs called it. She encouraged and sustained Russell’s new career as the leading defender of radical causes in Britain. He remained all his life a marvelously fluent and effective journalist, with an unequalled power to make complex and abstract theories, such as the theory of relativity and theories of political freedom, not only intelligible but also vivid and memorable to a large public. His sentences are consistently sharp and uncluttered, and yet, as Monk shows, they were turned out at high speed. I remember seeing Russell’s manuscript of a book of half-popular philosophy, replete with logical distinctions, which had scarcely a single erasure. Fueled by cups of tea, he went straight ahead at the pace, and in the style, of his beautifully distinct speaking force: a voice that was rather mannered and old-fashioned, but once heard never forgotten.

Reading Monk’s book is rather like reading a life of Victor Hugo: one is overwhelmed by the subject’s polemical power and by his long-lasting vitality and versatility. As his subtitle shows, Monk has an explanatory thread or theme which is intended to draw together very diverse utterances and activities: the theme of Russell’s having a lifelong sense of incurable loneliness, which was the effect of a largely motherless and fatherless childhood. The sense of loneliness is stressed by Russell himself in his abundant confessional publications and in his letters. This was obviously an important element in his inner nature and personality, and not only in his picture of himself.

But there was another element, at least equally strong, which was picked out by two utterly dissimilar persons, who were near-friends of Russell, Beatrice Webb and D.H. Lawrence. Beatrice Webb remarked that Russell was a good hater, and Lawrence, in a famous letter of denunciation, wrote: “It is not the hatred of falsity which inspires you. It is the hatred of people, of flesh and blood.” Russell himself told Ottoline Morrell, “There is a well of fierce hate in me.” This hatred, he said, “is also a well of life and energy—it would not really be good if I ceased to hate.” Hatred does not seem to me entirely the right word for this animating force. His personality and his conversation rather expressed disdain, contempt, sometimes a general disgust. “When I talk to an ordinary person, I feel I am talking baby language, and it makes me lonely”—once again confessing to Ottoline Morrell, whom he could feel to be a social equal. Enjoying the superiority of active intellect, he dreaded what he called “the sinister influence of obviousness.” With Wittgenstein and with Gilbert Murray and with Joseph Conrad, and in the Society of the Apostles at Cambridge, he could almost be at ease.

This inversion of populism was the natural consequence of his faith in liberal values and in reason, a faith that he knew could not possibly be widely shared. His special bond with Conrad, and his bitter dislike of Harvard professors and of American life generally, were aspects of this aristocratic disdain and separateness. A crowd is something that one addresses from a podium but otherwise avoids in long country walks. He despised evidence of wealth, and I remember him insisting on traveling by public transport when it was very difficult and inconvenient. The reason was that the alternatives seemed some kind of vulgarity, certainly more to be avoided than mere inconvenience.

Monk tells very well a wonderful and bracing story of the early years of this certainly great, witty, concise, charmless, dauntless, hard, dominant, easily bored, occasionally inspired maker of his times. It is a considerable advantage that in this case, the biographer, unlike his predecessors, understands his subject’s philosophical passions and disappointments.

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