Join 3,514 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


He laughed like an irresponsible foetus
June 8, 2009 2:30 AM   Subscribe

Parts 1, 2, 3 of a 1959 interview with philosopher, mathematician and peace campaigner Bertrand Russell (1872-1970). Works and pictures online include Anti-suffragist Anxieties, Why I am not a Christian, the Russell-Einstein Manifesto against nuclear weapons and the book The Conquest of Happiness. Russell is also known for his pithy quotes, his teapot and was the subject of poem Mr Apollinax by T.S. Eliot.
posted by TheophileEscargot (59 comments total) 46 users marked this as a favorite

 
"Why I am not a Christian" was probably one of the most influential things I read as a teenager, right up there with Carl Sagan's Demon-Haunted World.

The Touchstone collection titled "Why I am not a Christian" is still worth getting despite the titular essay being free to read from the link above - it has a wonderful section detailing the episode where Russell's appointment as a lecturer at City College in New York was overturned because of fears that he would pervert America's youth with his free-thinking ways.
posted by CRM114 at 2:52 AM on June 8, 2009 [2 favorites]


I grew up reading Russell as well and his work was deeply influential. Today, I'd say that intellectual kids should be reading and thinking about Russell by the age of 12. That is not a dismissal of Russell but an acknowledgment that his ideas are no longer as radical as they once were. They've become now part of the established world of ideas.

It is odd to me to now be living in an area that is infested with his presence.
His London flat, the one he lent to TS Eliot and his wife, is a block away. Also, I lease my own flat from the current Duke of Bedford, who has the surname Russell because he and Bertie (as Eliot called him) are both descended from John Russell.
posted by vacapinta at 3:11 AM on June 8, 2009


In a weird way, Russell made me not become a philosophy major. I was taking a phil. survey course in college and I'd picked up a copy of Russell's History of Western Philosophy to help gird myself. The professor saw my copy and barked "Why are your reading that book that's so wrong?" I mean, I could understand him wanting to steer me in another direction, or give me a caveat or something, but he simply made me feel stupid for trying to do a little outside reading. So I became an English major instead.

Fuck you very much, Kenyon College Philosophy Department.

(And my favorite Russell essay is "In Praise of Idleness.")
posted by bardic at 3:21 AM on June 8, 2009 [3 favorites]


He also discovered The Russell Paradox (or Russell Set) which blew my mind in first year mathematics at university.
posted by PenDevil at 3:30 AM on June 8, 2009


bardic: In a weird way, Russell made me not become a philosophy major. I was taking a phil. survey course in college and I'd picked up a copy of Russell's History of Western Philosophy to help gird myself. The professor saw my copy and barked "Why are your reading that book that's so wrong?" I mean, I could understand him wanting to steer me in another direction, or give me a caveat or something, but he simply made me feel stupid for trying to do a little outside reading.

But…it is a crap book. And outside reading is a bad thing; most classes I've taken don't focus enough on the inside reading, and outside stuff just muddles everything

But: carry on, of course.

posted by koeselitz at 3:42 AM on June 8, 2009


Wait, I've been reading Russell's History of Western Philosophy on and off for a few months now - what's so wrong about it? I'm a layperson so be gentle.
posted by CRM114 at 3:53 AM on June 8, 2009


HoWP is not crap - it's an amusing and idiosyncratic account which captures the spirit of philosophy in a very engaging way.

I think my old philosophy department actually used to recommend it as introductory reading, with mild warnings about taking everything it says as gospel. But in philosophy you don't take anything as gospel. If you can't cope with reading slightly inaccurate or skewed accounts of people's views, you probably can't cope with philosophy at all. The idea that you should only read 'correct' texts is so far against the whole ethos of philosophy as I understand it that I can only imagine poor bardic's prof really just wanted to start an argument and pitched it too aggressively by mistake.

If not, then I quite agree, fuck him very much indeed.
posted by Phanx at 4:26 AM on June 8, 2009 [1 favorite]


If HoWP is crap because it is somewhat nonfactual, I guess Timaeus and Critias (by little-known nobody "Plato") must really suck.
posted by DU at 4:39 AM on June 8, 2009 [1 favorite]


HoWP is extremely opinionated and polemical which doesn't make it very good as an introduction to Western philosophy, but the chapter on Nietzsche is hilarious.
posted by cogneuro at 4:57 AM on June 8, 2009


CRM114: Wait, I've been reading Russell's History of Western Philosophy on and off for a few months now - what's so wrong about it? I'm a layperson so be gentle.

I'm probably the last person who should be commenting on this in this thread—I disagree with Russell on just about everything, from Mathematics on down—but I'll give it a go: I feel as though Russell, first of all, doesn't seem to understand the import and meaning of modern philosophy, and, second (and most important for me) he damns the ancients with ridiculous praise. As I recall, he (like everyone else of his generation) praises Plato to the sky whilst damning Xenophon, who may well have been the better philosopher, as a foolish man. Russell clearly hasn't read Xenophon since his gradeschool Greek exercises, so I guess maybe he can be forgiven; however, it continues; almost everything he says about Plato or Aristotle is quite wrong—that they had great disputes, that they formed separate and distinct philosophical systems, etc. He lists the Republic as Plato's most important dialogue, and leaves off a dialogue which is probably more important (the Laws). In fact, it seems to me blindingly silly to conclude that the Republic actually sets out a state which Plato would have ever wanted to really enact when the Laws actually lays down a really practical Greek society. He simplifies and makes convenient and small almost every part of Plato's philosophy. Frankly, I'd rather Russell hated Plato; at least then he'd be forced to try to say something interesting about him, rather than burying him under nice, small descriptions and pat phrases. In his discussion of Aristotle, Russell perpetuates this idiotic myth that Aristotle initiated thousands of years of ignorance by dazzling the world with his intellect; this is patently false and also a pretty ignorant way to view the situation, given that there's more to Aristotle than meets the eye. He clearly hasn't spent much time reading Aristotle's works; he probably didn't read them at all past grade school, just like his other philosophical reading. I haven't brought myself to read the later parts of the book, but my friends who specialize in more modern philosophy have some of the same kinds of objections.

Bertrand Russell just isn't a philosopher. That's okay—he's not required to be. I try to speak only whereof I know, but I can't require that other people do the same. The History Of Western Philosophy was a big cash cow for Russell, and it's always been popular, but I don't think it's very good as a description of the history of philosophy.

posted by koeselitz at 5:13 AM on June 8, 2009 [3 favorites]


DU: If HoWP is crap because it is somewhat nonfactual, I guess Timaeus and Critias (by little-known nobody "Plato") must really suck.

(1) Neither the Timaeus nor the Critias purports to be a history.
(2) Both the Critias and the Timaeus express serious and thoughtful philosophical ideas, unlike HoWP.
posted by koeselitz at 5:15 AM on June 8, 2009


Um, if anyone's taking the "Bertrand Russell just isn't a philosopher" thing literally, note that the Russell link goes to Encyclopedia Britannica which says:
Russell’s contributions to logic, epistemology, and the philosophy of mathematics established him as one of the foremost philosophers of the 20th century.
While we cannot say empirically that Bertrand Russell was a philosopher, nevertheless we have evidence that others believe that he was.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 5:29 AM on June 8, 2009 [3 favorites]


Wow, koeselitz, I wish I thought you were trolling.
posted by Phanx at 5:48 AM on June 8, 2009


obligatory: Bertie Russell's philosophical joke (NSFW)
posted by criticalbill at 5:51 AM on June 8, 2009 [1 favorite]


Phanx: Wow, koeselitz, I wish I thought you were trolling.

Wish away.

The point of this thread—the fact that Bertrand Russell is a fascinating, thoughtful and interesting human being who did a good deal of cool stuff in his life—stands regardless of anybody's thoughts on his philosophy, which is really only one link up above there. And I want to say: thanks for these interviews, TheophileEscargot; I'm looking forward to watching them later in the day when I'm pretending to still be working. (Heh.) I have a feeling they'll be very interesting.
posted by koeselitz at 5:52 AM on June 8, 2009


"Outside reading is a bad thing" wasn't trolling? Yikes.
posted by DU at 6:03 AM on June 8, 2009


I'd like to hear more from koeselitz about why he doesn't think Russell is a philosopher.

Does anyone else want to chime in about Russell's take on the ancients? Because I would agree with koeselitz that (rightly or wrongly) Russell has a very dim view of Xenophon and a very benevolent take on Plato.
posted by CRM114 at 6:13 AM on June 8, 2009


Wish away

Then I wish you clarity of vision, and zeal ennobled with patience rather than embittered with indignation.
posted by Phanx at 6:13 AM on June 8, 2009 [1 favorite]


Sorry if it sounded like a troll; I wasn't aware there were people who hold outside reading as sacrosanct. But if there are, well, I'm sorry, again—that had nothing to do with the point of this thread.
posted by koeselitz at 6:14 AM on June 8, 2009


Guys, this would actually be a good MetaFilter conversation (just like in the good old days!) if we could just keep the conversation about Betrand Russell and not attempt to reverse-engineer every poster's baggage.
posted by CRM114 at 6:20 AM on June 8, 2009 [4 favorites]


CRM114: I'd like to hear more from koeselitz about why he doesn't think Russell is a philosopher.

Really, I meant that in the most neutral way possible. “Philosophy” isn't a holy and sacred name to me; Bertrand Russell is no less of a man for being outside that tradition. But he was really a mathematician and logician, and he was very, very good at those things; his Principia Mathematica laid the groundwork for all of the significant mathematical and logical thought of the last seventy years. Without it, we wouldn't have Kurt Gödel's interesting explorations or many other useful and worthwhile excursions into rational thought. Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy is also a fantastic work, a work of breadth and vision.

I feel about Bertrand Russell's philosophical and political (and religious) works the way I feel about REM's Automatic For The People and Out Of Time—and I love REM, so that should show you where I am on this. I don't see why more people don't spend their time on Principia Mathematica, that's all—iit's worth more than anything else he wrote.
posted by koeselitz at 6:26 AM on June 8, 2009 [1 favorite]


Self-link alert: I've been blogging selected insights from The Conquest of Happiness. An excellent book that still feels very relevant, almost 80 years later.
posted by Jaltcoh at 6:29 AM on June 8, 2009 [2 favorites]


I wasn't aware there were people who hold outside reading as sacrosanct.

I wasn't aware there were people who thought we should be reading less or doing less self-directed learning.
posted by DU at 6:29 AM on June 8, 2009 [1 favorite]


* If I'd be permitted to clarify something, I know I wasn't very straightforward on the whole ‘outside reading’ thing. I'm used to my classes at Boston College and St. John's College where the ‘inside reading’ was the actual text—Plato, Aristotle, Spinoza, Joyce, et cetera. In the face of those guys, it always seems like a cop-out to me when my fellow students want to run to some guide, some commentary or explanation to make the book less strange or mysterious to them. But I know that ‘outside reading’ in a lot of contexts means not reading the holy Professor's sacred book, which he has written and which we shall all quote from mightily and frequently in order to impress him and get a good grade; outside reading there means freeing yourself enough from a ridiculous old boor. No offense to anyone—I just really like old books, and am biased toward them.
posted by koeselitz at 6:37 AM on June 8, 2009


DU: I wasn't aware there were people who thought we should be reading less or doing less self-directed learning.

Learning is about reading less, yes. In some of the classes I was forced to take on my way to a Master's I had to read a hundred pages per class; that meant I didn't learn a damned thing. There were other classes—the best classes—where we read, at most, two pages per day in class, line by line and all together. Sorry, but I think that's how philosophy classes work best; they're a communal effort. It's not about enforcing a pedagogical heirarchy and demanding that people submit to a rule; it's about the fact that sharing a text with other people (which ought to be a damned good one, not something the professor himself wrote and wants everybody to harp on or anything like that) means focussing only on what's shared.
posted by koeselitz at 6:47 AM on June 8, 2009


Ever read Clive James's New Yorker review of Monk's biography of Russell? It's hilarious! One of the greatest character attacks I've seen in print. Russell comes out of it looking awful. I wish I could find a copy to link to without pages missing.

I haven't read Russell's History of Western Philosophy, but I've heard it's pretty inaccurate. It produces a lot more ire than it seems to merit, though. Russell attracts haters.

Also, koeselitz, you wish people spent more time on the Principia? Not commentary on the Principia, but the Principia itself? I can't imagine anyone being interested in that except hardened logicians. And for anyone with the background to read it, it'll come off as really basic. It's predominantly for historians at this point. I know a lot of logicians, but I don't think any of them have read the Principia or would get much out of it.
posted by painquale at 6:52 AM on June 8, 2009 [1 favorite]


So what's a sounder alternative for someone who wants to read a not-so-academic history of philosophy?
posted by bingo at 6:58 AM on June 8, 2009


Don't know of he man - philosopher - whatever. Seems very arrogant in the "I know it and you don't" sort of way. This guy would be living in his mother's basement if there were not a following of others who are as arrogant or "elite" a "thinker" as he is.
posted by boots77 at 7:05 AM on June 8, 2009


A lot of Russell is just as applicable today as the day it was written. From the Anti-Suffragist Anxieties, "To inflict a special disability upon one class in the community is in itself an evil, and is calculated to generate resentment on one side and arrogance on the other," and large portions of the entire argument could apply to the same-sex marriage debate currently appearing on the cultural stage.
posted by notashroom at 7:06 AM on June 8, 2009


koeselitz, I think I understand your preference for original sources, but they're not very accessible for the layperson, are they? The nice thing about histories from secondary and tertiary sources is that they provide context that original sources cannot.

Don't know of he man - philosopher - whatever. Seems very arrogant in the "I know it and you don't" sort of way. This guy would be living in his mother's basement if there were not a following of others who are as arrogant or "elite" a "thinker" as he is.

You're aware that Lord Russell has been dead for a good 40 years, right? And his mother for certainly longer than that.
posted by CRM114 at 7:14 AM on June 8, 2009 [1 favorite]


This guy would be living in his mother's basement if there were not a following of others who are as arrogant or "elite" a "thinker" as he is.

Yeah, stick it to those "elite" "thinkers" revolutionizing "logic" and providing "foundations" for "mathematics".
posted by painquale at 7:21 AM on June 8, 2009


I was pretty upset at koeselitz, but then --

Don't know of he man - philosopher - whatever. Seems very arrogant in the "I know it and you don't" sort of way. This guy would be living in his mother's basement if there were not a following of others who are as arrogant or "elite" a "thinker" as he is.

Wow. I uh... wow. I need to go for a walk and get some fresh air.
posted by limon at 7:33 AM on June 8, 2009


boots77, his actions speak for themselves. I think he deserves to be able to do this 'arrogant' behavior you seem so non-fond of.
posted by kldickson at 7:44 AM on June 8, 2009


It feels really preposterous to be defending Russell, but since people have (sensibly) responded by citing some of his many accomplishments, his theory of descriptions, type theory, his very wonderful writings on education (the goal of education is "to give a sense of the value of things other than domination, to help create wise citizens of a free community, to encourage a combination of citizenship with liberty, individual creativeness, which means that we regard a child as a gardener regards a young tree, as something with an intrinsic nature which will develop into an admirable form given proper soil and air and light"), and the Russell-Einstein Manifesto.

For those unfamiliar with Russell, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (linked above) is good, as is the Wikipedia entry.
posted by limon at 7:48 AM on June 8, 2009


"his Principia Mathematica laid the groundwork for all of the significant mathematical and logical thought of the last seventy years"

Um, is this true? I could ask my wife, the mathematician, but I don't think it's true. Hilbert, maybe. But Russell? Anyone care to weigh in?
posted by MarshallPoe at 7:59 AM on June 8, 2009


limon: I was pretty upset at koeselitz…

Yeesh, I've apologized twice already. Again, I'm sorry if anybody was hurt.
posted by koeselitz at 8:02 AM on June 8, 2009


Bertrand Russell just isn't a philosopher.

This might be the most foolish thing that I have ever read. Clearly, you have not read much of Russell's extensive body of work. And to speak of him as somehow "outside" of the philosophical tradition simply does not respect his importance to the analytic movement.
posted by Tullius at 8:26 AM on June 8, 2009


I recall sharing Russell's lofty view of Socrates -- until I read Stone's book, which (along with arguments from Pirsig) pretty much turned those views on their head.

I still share Russell's praise of Mill and Hume. If Stone wrote a book about *them*, I don't wanna know ...
posted by RavinDave at 8:29 AM on June 8, 2009 [1 favorite]


"Why I am not a Christian" was probably one of the most influential things I read as a teenager

Ditto. And even though his History of Western Philosophy was written mostly to make a buck, I treasured that book as a teenager as well.
posted by inoculatedcities at 8:39 AM on June 8, 2009


I think it's worth mentioning that most mathematicians do not consider Russell to be a mathematician; if they know anything about him at all, they think of him as a logician.
posted by wittgenstein at 8:41 AM on June 8, 2009


"Why I am not a Christian" was probably one of the most influential things I read as a teenager

I think this may be why you're not too fond of Russel, eh, koeselitz?
posted by Mental Wimp at 9:31 AM on June 8, 2009


I know it is overtly simplistic, but The Problems of Philosophy was the introductory text in my undergrad epistemology class. I am not sure whether it was the way the class was taught (artfully) or the facility with which Russell wrote, but it set an excellent stage for the topic and produced a framework to hang much of the more technical writing we read in that course. Based on that and In Praise of Idleness, I'd say Russell is one of my favorite authors to read in the field.

But, ultimately, I think of Russell's philosophy qua philosophy as more reader's digest than critical theory. IMO he was a logician first and a contemporary writer on topics of philosophy slash national thinker second. I always want to think of him in the same vein as Mark Twain, George Bernard Shaw, Gore Vidal, etc. Then again, I never delved into the mathematical side of his works given my interests in philosophy were more political/social.

Regardless, I greatly admire the guy and appreciate the links in the post.
posted by Fezboy! at 9:37 AM on June 8, 2009


I just finished Russells' History, and I thought it was great. It's a thousand-page-long propaganda piece for Analytic philosophy, (in the same way that The Rebel is a propaganda piece for Absurdism), but I also found it to be a very useful primer. He covers the big ideas in Western Philosophy, and explains where they went wrong and how they lead up to his work, which he believes to be right.

Whether or not he was a philosopher, he certainly wasn't a professional historian, so I'm not sure why anyone would expect it to be unbiased. Now, if there were actual factual errors, I don't know about them, and that's potentially quite a bit worse.

Also, for what it's worth, my take was that he was really quite anti-Plato--the book was written a few years before WWII, and he saw a very clear parallel between Plato and Fascism (whether this idea has merit, I cannot say). Also between the Romantics and Hitler.

Uh... I'll add that he certainly isn't a Continental philosopher, rather vehemently not, perhaps that's what Koeselitz has in mind?

Also that "Why I'm not a Christian" was enormously influential to me, as well, and that I considered taking Russell as my middle name. And that I love his voice. Oh, and that LaRouche absolutely hates the fellow.

(Oh, and that I have a bit of a crush on him).
posted by Squid Voltaire at 9:39 AM on June 8, 2009 [2 favorites]


This guy would be living in his mother's basement if there were not a following of others who are as arrogant or "elite" a "thinker" as he is.

Given the family he was born into, that would probably have been a very nice basement.
posted by Knappster at 9:40 AM on June 8, 2009


Um, is this true? I could ask my wife, the mathematician, but I don't think it's true. Hilbert, maybe. But Russell?

No, it's not really true. While the Principia was important, he really does get too much credit for the reduction of mathematics; Zermelo and other mathematicians were working on the same problems in a much more technically adept way (the Principia is full of all sorts of really basic goofs and errors, apparently).

It's actually sort of difficult to place Russell's influence. For almost any topic in logic or philosophy that he worked on at the time, others were doing what he did, and were clearly better at it and provided more influential and lasting works. Frege dwarfs Russell on logic and language in almost every respect; Russell's epistemology was sort of naive and his later phenomenalist position on external things being logical constructions of sense data is really bizarre; his political writings are well-intentioned but more pop than scholarly and I've never even seen them mentioned in current academic writings.

What he did do is completely change the philosophical landscape in the English-speaking world. Russell popularized a methodology that is still the main methodology of current (analytic) philosophy. (This marks the birth of the analytic/continental divide). He killed British idealism and replaced it with a concern for formal logic.

There was a fun little discussion of Russell recently on Brian Weatherson's blog, here. Brian gives the negative case, scroll down to comment 13 for Peter Ludlow's positive case.

There's one other possibly contentious contribution I think you could claim that Russell made. This is a little speculative, so I'd be pleased to be corrected if others know the history of linguistics better than I do. One way of thinking about (some areas of) philosophy is that philosophy deals with particularly open-ended questions that we don't yet know how to answer by using a formal method. Once we develop a method for answering these questions, a science breaks off. Physicists used to be called natural philosophers, then Newton came along and gave us some traction, and we got physics (Leibniz and Newton were working on the exact same problems, yet we call one a philosopher and the other a scientist). Early psychology was early philosophy of mind. And so on. I think a particularly clean case of this happening in the lat century is the birth of linguistic semantics. Russell's most lasting theoretical contribution is surely his theory of descriptions (giving a logical reduction of 'the'). His apparent success at this generated a huge interest in exploring the logical reduction of language. I think it's fair to say that as the complexity of this project grew, it gradually turned into a science and got parceled off over to linguistics departments under the heading of 'semantics'. So Russell was quite influential in the birth of a scientific subdiscipline.
posted by painquale at 9:40 AM on June 8, 2009 [2 favorites]


But, ultimately, I think of Russell's philosophy qua philosophy as more reader's digest than critical theory. IMO he was a logician first and a contemporary writer on topics of philosophy slash national thinker second.

But his contributions to Logic were philosophical! Or, rather, his work in Logic was work in Philosophy. He believed, as I understand it, that many of the age-old "unsolvable" problems were simply the result of poor logic and messy thinking, and that when stated in a sufficiently clear way they would simply disappear.

You might not agree with the ideas, but his was surely Philosophic work?
posted by Squid Voltaire at 9:43 AM on June 8, 2009


I think it's worth mentioning that most mathematicians do not consider Russell to be a mathematician; if they know anything about him at all, they think of him as a logician.

posted by wittgenstein at 8:41 AM on June 8 [+] [!]


Eponysterical.
posted by jabberjaw at 9:57 AM on June 8, 2009 [1 favorite]


Of course, Russell would reply that epistemological truth cannot be derived by polling mathematicians.
posted by RavinDave at 10:19 AM on June 8, 2009


Beyond being recognized as a writer of the first order and a curator of wry observation, Bertrand Russell deserves the title of patron philosopher of this very website, if only for his immortal and oft-cited summation of the Pythagorian religion, from the History of Western Philosophy:
Pythagoras is one of the most interesting and puzzling men in history. Not only are the traditions concerning him an almost inextricable mixtures of truth and falsehood, but even in their barest and least disputable form they present us with a very curious psychology.

He may be described, briefly, as a combination of Einstein and Mrs. Eddy. He founded a religion, of which the main tenets were the transmigration of souls and the sinfulness of eating beans. His religion was embodied in a religious order, which, here and there, acquired control of the State and established a rule of the saints. But the unregenerate hankered after beans, and sooner or later rebelled.
Metafilter: The unregenerate hankered after beans, and sooner or later rebelled.
posted by bicyclefish at 10:21 AM on June 8, 2009


I think much more could be said in defense of Russell. For example, he was one of the few leftist intellectuals to come out early against the Soviet Union. He didn't just write letters to the editor, but went to jail for his pacifism. The issues of his personal life should be placed in context of the repression of England of the time; his writing, while it could be overly flowery and Romantic, did actually win him a Nobel Prize in literature (indicating it at least impressed readers of the time.)

I wonder of some of the animus towards Russell is based on (a) Continental philosophers and those influenced by "postmodernist" movements and those whose primary interest in philosophy may be linguistic, (b) those who see him as an inferior foil to Wittgenstein (for the reasons in a)--Wittgenstein apparently is also seen as something of a gay icon. I found Rebecca Goldstein's portrait of Wittgenstein in her short biography of Kurt Godel to be pretty devastating--from Godel's point of view, Wittgenstein was grappling with self-induced mystifying confusions, when more rigorous mathematics was able to establish something with more actual philosophical import. (c) Some of the haters resist seeing humanism sort of subsumed under mathematical logic, which Russell's elevation seems to establish--some, like the New Yorker reviewer, kind of brag about their ignorance of technical science, and use that to establish connection with the reader. On the other hand, Russell seems to think he has a lot to say to most people not because mathematical logic is an abstruse field he excelled at, but because it provides grounding for scientific knowledge and our basic place in the world.

As far as his technical contributions to mathematical logic, I guess I'd say the plan for logic to form the solid foundations of mathematics didn't succeed any more than set theory or formalism, but (together with his criticism of Frege) were part of the synthesis that led to our current foundations of mathematics. Not all working mathematicians are so interested in the foundations though.
posted by Schmucko at 10:38 AM on June 8, 2009 [2 favorites]


That entry on Pythagoras is "wildly wrong," and an example of the iffiness of the history in Russell's work. M. F. Burnyeat discusses it here. (Although he does give Russell a pass, saying that he was just reporting scholarly opinion at the time.)
posted by painquale at 10:42 AM on June 8, 2009 [1 favorite]


You might not agree with the ideas, but his was surely Philosophic work?

I wasn't trying to diminish his work as non-philosophic. Poor phrasing on my part. I was working the distinction between reading something like Leibniz or Berkeley--which whom he was conversing in Problems--or with writers like Chisholm who carried on after Problems. My opinion being that Russell doesn't engage in new work so much as reframing the conversation in a way he finds more conducive to discussion. In the process, more often that not, he also makes the material more accessible to the lay person. Hence the 'reader's digest' appellation.

I still think it is a valid point to distinguish between advancing the field through critical theory or putting out new ideas and the kinds of framing exercises that Russell regularly engaged in. I wouldn't say one is necessarily better than the other--it's all about context and the deftness with which one performs their work. That Russell was exceptionally deft goes a long way in explaining the rise of analytic philosophy as a methodology.

Some people advance fields by the thoughts they bring to the table. Others by the way they reformulate those ideas. My point being Russell was much more the latter than the former. I will grant you, however, that he was so good at this that he helped bring about a new methodology that could be considered new and revolutionary in its own right. Or, as painquale more aptly said:
It's actually sort of difficult to place Russell's influence. For almost any topic in logic or philosophy that he worked on at the time, others were doing what he did, and were clearly better at it and provided more influential and lasting works. Frege dwarfs Russell on logic and language in almost every respect; Russell's epistemology was sort of naive and his later phenomenalist position on external things being logical constructions of sense data is really bizarre; his political writings are well-intentioned but more pop than scholarly and I've never even seen them mentioned in current academic writings.
I think what Russell brings, and why I enjoy him so much more than his "critical writing" might merit is thw quality of his prose, the clarity of his thought, and my admiration of him as a man of thought.
posted by Fezboy! at 10:52 AM on June 8, 2009 [1 favorite]


I don't like the characterization of Russell as amazing logician and popularizer but terrible philosopher that is running through this thread. Russell was a poor political philosopher and poor historian of philosophy, but a great philosopher in general. The man wrote On Denoting! I like the way Ludlow put it in the thread I linked to in a previous comment: "some would say ‘On Denoting’ was the greatest piece of philosophical analysis of the 20th century. Not because it was flawless, but because it at once introduced all sorts of ideas that we still debate (descriptions as quantifier expressions, descriptive theory of names, descriptions as senses, quantifier scope in intensional environments, a rejection of Meinongianism, and on and on). There are so many ideas in it, it’s like the paper came from mars."
posted by painquale at 11:30 AM on June 8, 2009


Hey -- Trust Me! I knew the guy!
posted by wittgenstein at 1:24 PM on June 8, 2009 [1 favorite]


Here's how I know he wasn't a philosopher. He'd be in there if he were...
posted by Mental Wimp at 2:07 PM on June 8, 2009


My opinion being that Russell doesn't engage in new work so much as reframing the conversation in a way he finds more conducive to discussion.

That's an interesting implied definition of "new work". I would think that effort would be at the heart of philosophical investigation.
posted by Mental Wimp at 2:10 PM on June 8, 2009


Plus he looked like the Mad Hatter.

Speaking of teapots....
posted by IndigoJones at 5:28 PM on June 8, 2009


My favorite Russell collection is "Unpopular Essays" which includes the following kickass essays.

An Outline of Intellectual Rubbish
Ideas that have Helped Mankind
Ideas that have Harmed Mankind

posted by storybored at 7:51 PM on June 8, 2009 [1 favorite]


To me, Russell is much like Chomsky—a guy who did groundbreaking technical work early, then veered into social, political and cultural criticism that colored his reputation in the field.
posted by stargell at 8:01 PM on June 8, 2009


« Older The Austin Lounge Lizards are Too Big To Fail. (SL...  |  The far-right, whites-only Bri... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments