Bertrand Russell: The Ghost of Madness 1921–1970
Volume I of Ray Monk’s admirable biography of Bertrand Russell, subtitled “The Spirit of Solitude,” ends in 1921, precisely at the high point of Russell’s purely intellectual life. Although he published several works of academic philosophy in later years—the last of them, Human Knowledge: Its Scope and Limits (1948), was written in his seventies—none was an exciting and enduring contribution to the subject, not even An Inquiry into Meaning and Truth (1938), which was the best of them. Monk describes how Wittgenstein totally and finally destroyed Russell’s confidence in his philosophical program, and in effect expelled him from his own Garden of Eden, which was mathematics and the philosophy of mathematics. Wittgenstein had argued that there could be no complete foundation for human knowledge, whether in mathematics or in other domains.
Russell never seriously tried to return to philosophy until the 1930s, when he thought that he needed a reliable income to help to pay for his children and also for the alimony owed to his second wife, Dora. Philosophy had no interest for him if it could not be the exhibition of knowledge placed on its secure foundations. If this architectural metaphor was dead, and was shown to be merely a trap and a trap presenting an illusion, then philosophy was for him dead too. There is a depressing story told in this new volume that Gödel, perhaps the greatest logician since Aristotle, and always accessible in Princeton, was hoping to prepare a discussion with Russell, both on paper and in person, on the reality of mathematical objects. When there were practical difficulties to be overcome, it emerged that Russell was simply not interested: it was for him too late, with all his mathematical passion spent long ago, in the first two decades of the century.
So Volume II is largely a story of decline and unhappiness, and Monk dwells rather heavily on both. If you happen to have read two outstanding biographies of two men of genius in quick succession, Robert Skidelsky on Keynes and Monk on Russell, both emerging from Cambridge, England, both essentially formed by that place, both contributing extensively to the intellectual climate in which those who are now old grew up, you would be tempted to a Plutarchan comparison. How is it that the life of John Maynard Keynes, as now recounted, presents a model of active virtue, public and private, and of almost ideal happiness and fulfillment, in an Aristotelian sense? It was a balanced and controlled life of multiple activities in many directions, all duly recognized and rewarded, a life lived among family and lifelong friends and in marriage, and one that is now piously, but not too piously, commemorated.
Turn now to Russell, at least as his life is chronicled in detail by Monk, and the story has the very opposite features. He is quoted as repeatedly saying that he has wasted his abilities and that he deeply regrets devoting his energies to philosophy. Beatrice Webb …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.