Bertrand Russell
Bertrand Russell; drawing by David Levine

Bertrand Russell’s Autobiography (which was published in three volumes in the 1960s) is a work that leaves one in more than one way winded. It is not altogether a book, bringing together a rather random collection of letters with a sketchy account of the author’s life which, though sometimes alarmingly frank, omits much and hurries the reader on from one cursorily described event to another. It is not just the speed of travel that leaves one gasping, but the glancing view of some episodes that Russell puts in. One is several times confronted with a summary or dismissive account of central, professedly transforming, occurrences in his life, which cannot, surely, represent things as they were then lived, yet at the same time is not just the misleading product of a distant or oblique style of recollection.

There is no recognizable economy of narration which explains the effect produced by the Autobiography. The spiritual transitions which flash by, which are enacted between the striking of a match and the puffing of that ubiquitous pipe, do not seem as blank and unreal as they do because the structural outlines are left on the horizon, the emotional materials having burned or wasted away. On the contrary, it is the language of intense and overwhelming feeling, for a person or for the sufferings of mankind, that itself lights up these Polaroid snaps of Russell’s past and leaves the reader with a problem about how Russell could possibly have understood himself, either when he wrote these pages or when what he wrote about occurred. The most famous, now notorious, case is his account of his deciding on a bicycle ride that he no longer loved his first wife, Alys, and pedaling back to live for years in accordance with that discovery. But there are many other passages in which references to extreme or drastic resolution leave the reader bewilderingly distant from any conception of Russell’s self-understanding.

Mr. Clark’s long biography does much to help us on questions of fact, to fill in holes in the story, and to correct some impressions left by Russell’s account. For one thing, his affair with Connie Malleson (“Colette”) went on longer, and had more echoes in Russell’s later life, than you would judge from the Autobiography. Clark has taken great pains with an enormous amount of material, Russell’s widow having given him full access to documents. He makes a number of new discoveries and suggestions, very plausibly proposing in particular that the object of a passion in Russell’s earlier life, whose identity he concealed, was in fact Mrs. Alfred North Whitehead. He is good, also, at sorting out more recent events, and gives a very reasonable account of Russell’s involvement in the Committee of 100 against nuclear weapons, and his eventual quarrel with Ralph Schoenman.

The amount of work that has gone into producing this well-documented and clearly signposted account of Russell’s life is not to be underestimated. But one cannot pretend that it is an illuminating or even a deeply enjoyable read. It has the property of large books sold at airports: the author judges that he has his reader for a long while if he neither lets him sleep nor makes him work, so that the style is by turns undemandingly bland and stridently chummy. “Bertie…was therefore denied the tempering ordeal of a public school and consigned to a mixed bag of governesses and tutors,” he cheerily says near the beginning, and the tone is not untypical. Several reviewers have remarked that the style seems to get less embarrassing as the book goes on, and this is true, but it is hard to know whether the reason is that Clark is more used to his subject, we are more used to Clark, or Clark finds the events of Russell’s later life easier to deal with.

One reason might be that Russell’s contributions to philosophy in his later life were less fundamental, both to the subject and to Russell’s view of himself. Clark’s occasional dealings with Russell’s philosophy are unsuccessful, and indeed it is not easy to guess what he takes himself to be doing. Many of his brief accounts of Russell’s philosophical work can be read in more than one way, and one of those ways is usually not totally wrong; but it seems rash to suppose that that will be the one to occur to a reader who benefits from being told, as Clark tells him, that Leibniz was “Voltaire’s Dr. Pangloss, the German polymath who had waltzed through the second half of the seventeenth century as philosopher, scientist, mathematician and diplomat.” A basic weakness of such accounts is that they do not rest on knowledge of other philosophy; one reason why Clark makes a mess of the admittedly hard task of explaining what Russell’s most famous logical article, “On Denoting,” is about is that he is not familiar with Frege’s treatment of the issues, from which Russell started. Clark falls back on identifying the main point of the article with its most prominent joke.


It is a pity that Clark has not got a better sense of Russell’s major work; for one thing, it means that Russell’s relations to others who affected him in that work, above all Wittgenstein, are very vaguely characterized—these geniuses engaged in deep and difficult subjects are presented as grand and quaint, like great physicists in a TV documentary. But Russell’s major contributions were to very technical and abstract branches of philosophy and logic, and it is unreasonable to hope that his biographer will be an expert in those subjects.

Even A.J. Ayer’s book, which gives a marvelously clear and of course utterly professional account of some of Russell’s central ideas in philosophy, does not take on the hard task that lies beyond the recognition that Russell made a great contribution to the philosophy of logic: the task, that is to say, of assessing exactly how much difference Russell’s work made to the development of modern work in the foundations of mathematics. Clark does best with Russell’s more popular writings on ethical and social subjects—a department in which Ayer, for his part, mostly contents himself with a brief account of Russell’s not very interesting theoretical opinions in moral philosophy, accompanied by some bleak tutorial comment on them.

What is more unsettling than Clark’s dealings with Russell’s central philosophical work is his uncertainty of taste in assessing Russell’s rhetoric. “A Free Man’s Worship” is described as “a short but profoundly moving cry of defiance against the human predicament, couched in terms of romantic disillusion”; but it is not only a dated but also a hollow piece of oratory, and Clark’s acceptance of it at its face value shows a lack of curiosity. Russell himself was later, in his more Voltair-ean period, to have doubts about its style, but the weakness of its costless heroics against cosmic indifference went deeper and further than he recognized. There is an absurdity in Russell’s resentment at the universe’s failure to live up to man’s expectations, a resentment which seems an extension of his annoyance at mankind’s not living up to him. “I am ashamed to belong to such a species,” he wrote in 1916.

There is a fascinating page in volume two of the Autobiography dealing with that period, where, writing of making love to Connie Malleson during a Zeppelin raid, he describes sentiments about the war which he felt intensely at that moment, sentiments which show up as not totally free either of easy heroics or of contempt for the idiot mob. This love for humanity, coupled with a dismissive hatred of many of its deepest characteristics, is typical of Russell and is obscure enough to blur the picture of his love for a particular person, which he insists on bringing together with those general feelings. Of his relation to Connie Malleson, he said that it was “never trivial and never unworthy to be placed alongside of the great public emotions connected with the War.” But where exactly does that place it?

Often, Russell writes of feelings as though they were unmeasurably overwhelming, and yet as though, in the next minute, he had quite straightforwardly got their measure. This phenomenon, so bewildering in the Autobiography, turns up in several curious passages quoted by Clark. Writing to Ottoline Morrell, Russell speaks of what he called his “first conversion,” in the presence of a woman who Clark has given us reason to believe was Mrs. Whitehead:

I came to know suddenly (what it was not intended I should know) that a woman whom I liked greatly had a life of utter loneliness, filled with intense tragedy & pain of which she could never speak. I was not free to tell my sympathy, which was so intense as to change my life. I turned to all the ways there might be of alleviating her trouble without seeming to know it & so I went on in thought to loneliness in general, & how only love bridges the chasm—how force is the evil thing, & strife is the root of all evil & gentleness the only balm. I became infinitely gentle for a time. I turned against the S. African war & imperialism (I was an imperialist till then) & I found that I loved children & they loved me. I resolved to bring some good & some hope into her life. All this happened in about five minutes.

Certainly thoughts relating to each of those things could intensely pass in five minutes. Perhaps one could even end up after five minutes in those states (though the discovery about children seems a bit ambitious). But certainly no grown-up person should write in retrospect as though a five-minute sequence of intense emotion was itself the entire enactment of all those life-transforming changes; any more than one expects him to be able to write, in all solemnity, of a different time:


That was the only time when I completely lost faith in myself & thought of myself as a mere cumberer of the earth. I resolved to commit suicide as soon as I could get rid of certain definite obligation which for the moment made it impossible.

It was not just Russell’s feelings, but the fact that he had feelings, that excited him, and this certainly contributed to the now well-known emergencies of his sexual life. Clark gives some idea of the different significance to Russell of different relationships, though he tends to adopt a rather breezy and knowing tone about some of it, and he leaves us outside the complexities and strangenesses of Russell’s relations to Ottoline Morrell. Some of Russell’s reactions, particularly in self-justification, are certainly surprising—sometimes it is hard to gather even what he thought he was saying. When he had just had a brief affair in America with the unfortunate Helen Dudley (who later followed him at his suggestion to England, but proved boringly unequal to Russell’s feelings about the war), he wrote to Ottoline, with whom he was still intensely involved:

I do not want you to think that this will make the very smallest difference in my feeling towards you, beyond removing the irritation of unsatisfied instinct. I suppose it must give you some pain, but I hope not very much if I can make you believe it is all right & that she is not the usual type of American. The whole family are extraordinarily nice people….

But it must be said that he was able to extract strikingly long-lasting devotion from others: Alys, a pathetic figure in Clark’s representation, still in love with him, apparently, until her death; Colette (who seems to have been marvelous) sending him red roses on his ninety-seventh birthday. And the autobiography of Dora, his second wife, though it sturdily sets out to live up to the self-reliant promise of its subtitle, in fact is a tribute to the power that Russell’s presence had in forming her life. In her book there is an implied, as well as a stated, acknowledgement of the sense of life that he obviously could, while he was still interested, convey. After he and Dora split up and he left the school they had started together, there were unceasing squabbles and pieces of litigation. While Dora Russell tells something of this tale, it lacks any great force of recrimination or self-justification or anything else—she seems to have lost interest. The pages of this book which stand out as vivid are those about their time in China together just before their marriage, when Russell was exceptionally happy.

Russell has been called a skeptic, and there is indeed a biography of him by Alan Wood (Simon & Schuster, 1958) subtitled “The Passionate Sceptic.” Skepticism is concerned with the withholding of assent, the sustaining of a state of intellectual suspense; it is very hard to find any strain of real skepticism in Russell, as opposed to an occasional judicious tone of voice and an advocacy of the virtues of benevolent reasonableness. His opinions were often dogmatic, simple, emphatically expressed, and poorly supported by evidence. They were said to be skeptical merely because they were antireli-gious and unpopular; perhaps also he seemed a skeptic because he appeared to want to believe some of the things he denied, and made it seem such a heroic feat not to deny that the world is as it is.

In his technical philosophy he was not a skeptic but, after his first years, an empiricist, and the main guiding thread to his development is his attachment to empiricist principles and habits of thought. As in the empiricist tradition, his philosophy of language is always closely allied to the theory of knowledge. It is impossible to give an account of his logico-linguistic treatment of particular terms and definite descriptions that does not also involve his conception of knowledge by acquaintance, of what can be grasped with certainty. A.J. Ayer gives a very clear account of how this works, but (no doubt because his own sympathies lie close to Russell’s) he does not bring it into such strong relief, or contrast it with contemporary alternatives, as D.F. Pears does in his book Bertrand Russell and the British Tradition in Philosophy (Random House, 1967). Related to that empiricist strain, but sometimes conflicting with its more radical demands, was Russell’s attempt to make his philosophy cohere with what he conceived to be the general findings of the natural sciences—something which brought him back to a causal theory of perception from the more Humean type of position which he occupied in the Analysis of Mind.

This element of respect for the sciences in Russell’s work might well prove more sympathetic to philosophers now than it has in the past twenty-five years, when Wittgensteinian attitudes represented any tendency of philosophy to be shaped by the natural sciences—and still more any attempt by philosophy to emulate them in method—as a basic indecency. A revaluation of Russell’s theories of knowledge and their associated metaphysics will need a less squeamish temper. It will also need a certain relaxation of the insistence, particularly inherited from G.E. Moore, on the virtues of literal accuracy, which Russell, always a swift and careless writer, treated with some disdain.

The time has come for that revaluation, and there is room for doubt about what will emerge: whether Russell has been seriously undervalued in these areas (as opposed to the philosophy of logic, where his reputation is assured), or whether it is true, as many philosophers would say, that the larger bulk of Russell’s philosophy is unfruitfully archaic. Unlike Moore and, above all, Wittgenstein, Russell was largely free of real worries, so characteristic of twentieth-century thought, about what philosophy is or could be. I think he regarded freedom from these reflexive worries as a mark of vitality, but it may prove to have been a kind of obstinacy which, together with his facility, led him to run up philosophical theories of just the kind that no longer have anything to offer. If Russell’s epistemological work does prove, on the other hand, to retain real interest, then it will have been a triumph, in a certain sense, of his naiveté as against the self-consciousness of his contemporaries.

In practical life, politics, and social opinion Russell was yet further removed from skepticism than in his formal philosophy. That moderation of assertion which is supposed to characterize the skeptic he used more as a rhetorical device than in a discipline of self-criticism, and the temptations of indignant emphasis often seduced him. Sometimes his published opinions were the victims of a haste imposed on him by the heavy journalistic routine which he sustained to keep himself and his family—Clark has a good quotation from a letter to Stanley Unwin:

It has been drawn to my attention that on page 209 of “Marriage and Morals” I say “It seems on the whole fair to regard negroes as on the average inferior to white men.” I wish in any future reprint to substitute for the words: “It seems on the whole fair,” the words “There is no sound reason.”

For a man who often insisted that practice should be guided by thought, and thought controlled by evidence, his enthusiasm for acting, and advocating action, on the basis of some flimsy bright idea was remarkable. It lay behind his advocacy of a preventive war against the USSR in the late 1940s, an episode particularly carefully investigated by Clark.

In a way that was, in its effects on other people, more painful, an amazing confidence of this kind seems to have attended the experiment of a progressive school at Beacon Hill which he and Dora undertook. Their daughter Katharine was one of the pupils, and her touching and unpretentious book gives a very real if avowedly subjective view of what it was like. Though he could also be great fun, theory in the form of some dire amalgam of Rousseau, Pavlov, and the Puritan conscience seems to have filled the judicious philosopher with an alarming degree of conviction, both in the general conduct of the school (which not altogether surprisingly came to bore him), and in his dealings with his own children. Mrs. Tait tells of a small, but to me chilling, episode when her brother John as a small boy had to stagger on a long climb from the beach with a rock which he wanted to keep and which was too heavy for him, having been told on clear and reasonable grounds of principle that he could keep it if and only if he carried it home by himself.

Whether it was enthusiasm for a new libertarian yet disciplined world, or political indignation, or sexual passion, or pantheistic surges, there emerges the impression that Russell was so relieved that he had powerful feelings that he was only too happy to take them at their face value. His theoretical philosophy, moreover, offered not much value to such feelings beyond their face. He made a harsh disjunction of reason and feeling, and held a simply deductive or instrumental view of reason. Such views offered him little space in which to understand feeling critically, or to deepen or enrich it. “He was especially prone to accept Hume’s theory that the emotions are detached, because he himself exemplified it,” as David Pears has said in his admirable review of Clark (The New Review, London, December 1975). If feelings did not mean what, at the reviving moment of their onrush, they seemed to mean, then perhaps they meant nothing at all; and if they meant nothing, then nothing meant anything. In this inability to detach the significance of feeling from its immediate aspect, there is something adolescent. D.H. Lawrence, who said a lot of silly things about Russell, and in some ways got the worst, from Russell’s well-known memoir, of their inevitable quarrel, nevertheless was centrally and deadly right when he wrote to Ottoline Morrell of Russell, then aged forty-three:

he is vitally, emotionally, much too inexperienced in personal contact and conflict, for a man of his age and calibre. It isn’t that life has been too much for him, but too little. Tell him he is not to write lachrymose letters to me of disillusion and disappointment and age; that sounds like nineteen.

This lack of a real relation to his feelings, his attachment to their surface meaning, shakes confidence in Russell. We cannot take him as a touchstone of things, and when he is presented, as he occasionally was by himself and more frequently by others, as the channel of reason or humanity or human dignity, there is reason for distrust. It is not as a selfless embodiment of rational principle that he is to be seen, nor is he one of those figures who divine, transmit, and shape feelings which are shared by others but elude those others’ formulation. Even in his stand against nuclear warfare, though it was important and impressive and admirable that he stood where he did and extended an emblem of reason against what is offered as rationality by technocrats and politicians, he did not gain his dignity in this by having any deeper understanding of things than they, or a more insightful conception of reason. He just obstinately, and valuably, placed himself where he did because that is how he then felt.

Even in this case, and still more obviously elsewhere in his life, it is not moral penetration that gives Russell’s life its extraordinary quality, nor is it understanding, whether of himself or of anyone else. It is his will, in the purest sense of willfulness. His embodiment of the aristocratic characteristics he was aware of in his conception of human excellence—“fearlessness, independence of judgment, emancipation from the herd, leisurely culture”; the sheer arbitrariness of his choice, on a considerable scale, to do what he wanted—these, together with his philosophical achievements, actually carry greater authority than his reasons for the social ideals he was always preaching, or the powerful cosmic and personal passions which so impressed him.

This Issue

March 4, 1976