Bertrand Russell

Philosophy of Culture

By Bertrand Russell, Cambridge University Library, citizen philosophy, Islamic falasifa, Meaning in Anthropos, minority repertories

Cambridge University Library

The citizen version of analytical philosophy does not necessarily converge in all respects with the academic equivalent. The former  may occasionally sound a note of innovation.

Contemporary academic philosophy was not sufficient to contain my interest during the 1970s and 1980s. In my own citizen instance, an investigation of interdisciplinary matters soon developed, while retaining a close interest in “philosophical problems” and innovative analytical formats. The social sciences and the history of religions now furnish so much data that to ignore these is a mistake.

Further, the history of religions to some extent converges with the history of philosophy, in that certain minority repertories (e.g., the Islamic falasifa) are closely related to (though not by any means identical with) religious sociocultures. The same considerations apply to Jewish philosophers of the medieval era, a category who frequently lived in Islam-dominated environments.

In my own case, the field of philosophy is not limited to modern Western philosophy (and the preceding Schoolmen), but extends to the more inclusive panorama of classical Greek and Islamic phases of the phenomenon. There is a basic three tier cross-cultural investigation involved, becoming rather more complex when various extensions are admitted. In this inclusive approach, there is ample room for the “problems” and “language” factors, not always arising in the format anticipated by contemporaries.

Three tier presentation is conventionally credited, a well known instance being Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy (1946). Russell covered the Greeks, Christian exponents and Schoolmen, and the moderns. There was only a brief chapter on the Muslim counterparts and a fleeting reference to the medieval Jewish contribution. Scholarship in such neglected fields has grown substantially since the 1940s; the history of philosophy has to some extent changed contour.

The inclusive approach does require some basic study. When I commenced this form of “doing philosophy,” I did not grasp the extent of the study materials involved. That emerging problem caused me to undertake private research at Cambridge University Library. My preliminary work Meaning in Anthropos (1991) was composed in 1984. Conventional philosophy was there juxtaposed alongside data from social science, the history of science, and the history of religions.

I do not claim to have charted anything definitive, only to have pursued a strong interest anchored in library studies undertaken at my own expense in Cambridge over a twelve year period. There was no official grant available for such an unorthodox interdisciplinary project.

I have described my early Cambridge endeavour as interdisciplinary anthropography, a cumbersome phrase which I prefer to abbreviate. The endeavour is distinct from ethnography. I have also referred to the ongoing approach under discussion in terms of a philosophy of culture, a more readily assimilable concept, even though it may comprise a simplification of the project denoted. See also my web article Aspects of Citizen Philosophy (2009).

Standards of culture are diversely reflected in religious, political, and educational formats, for better or for worse. Definitions of culture have varied in social science. Philosophical definition is still in the offing. I believe that culture is a more pressing yardstick than society or language, despite the relevance of the latter terms.

Kevin R. D. Shepherd
January 26th 2010

ENTRY no. 10

Copyright © 2010 Kevin R. D. Shepherd. All Rights Reserved.

Wittgenstein Revisited

By Bertrand Russell, logical positivism, Tractatus, Wittgenstein

Ludwig Wittgenstein

There are some very different interpretations of Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951). I mentioned certain of these in entry no 2. I also stated that the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921) did not inspire me, but only interested me. This famous treatise was certainly an influential and significant work.

A key sentence of the Tractatus is well known. “What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.” Much depends upon what we really can speak about.

A basic problem looms. There is still no definitive or standard view of what the Tractatus means. Contrasting interpretations of this salient text can evoke irritation. The ambiguity discernible here perhaps underlines Wittgenstein’s own statement, made to his publishers, that what the Tractatus did not contain was more important than what it did contain. This paradox is sometimes interpreted in the context of a “metaphysical” dimension which Wittgenstein regarded as being beyond speech.

According to one trend of exegesis, Wittgenstein recognised deficiencies of the Tractatus in his later years. “It was above all [Piero] Sraffa’s acute and forceful criticism that compelled Wittgenstein to abandon his earlier views and set out upon new roads” (G.H. Von Wright, “Biographical Sketch,” in Norman Malcolm, Ludwig Wittgenstein: A Memoir, Oxford University Press, 1958; repr. 1980, p. 15).

Another interpretation suggests that he was less discontented with the Tractatus in his mature years than is often believed. The crux here is that Wittgenstein was more dissatisfied with the assumptions that he probed, not with his actual conclusions. The basic confrontation transpired to be with logical positivism. He examined the belief that an entirely empirical language is possible. Adherents of this explanation say the Tractatus proved the proposition about language to be untenable. In this perspective, Wittgenstein had no reason to correct anything in the Tractatus at a later date.

From this angle, his main point of disagreement was with what other philosophers made of the Tractatus, especially the Vienna Circle, who were enthusiastic about this work. Wittgenstein is said to have perceived that Bertrand Russell, G.E. Moore, Rudolf Carnap, and others did not fully understand the arguments involved. In this light, the flawed interpretation of the Tractatus, by the Vienna Circle, was the main reason for Wittgenstein’s return to Cambridge in 1929, likewise his subsequent application to the Philosophical Investigations (1953).

Some investigators have found a problem in Wittgenstein’s “contemplative philosophy.” His form of verbalism avoided “metaphysical” identifications. However, he did at least once express a positive view about the conception of God. There are different commentarial statements about whether he actually believed in God. In theory, he should have remained silent about such beliefs, in accord with his austere discussion of language philosophy as represented in the Tractatus.

The significant memoir by Professor Norman Malcolm states: “Wittgenstein frequently said to me disparaging things about the Tractatus. I am sure, however, that he still regarded it as an important work” (Malcolm, Ludwig Wittgenstein: A Memoir, repr. 1980, p. 69).

Malcolm also penetrated the difficult subject of religion in this instance. Wittgenstein told Malcolm that he had been contemptuous of religion in his youth; at about the age of 21, a change occurred in him, when “for the first time he saw the possibility of religion” (ibid., p. 70). Then during his service in the First World War, he was strongly influenced by Tolstoy’s writings on the Gospels (ibid.). He nevertheless produced such an ostensibly “positivist” work as the Tractatus, from which Malcolm cites 6.44: “Not how the world is, is the mystical, but that it is.” Like other aphorisms of Wittgenstein, special interpretation is needed.

Wittgenstein was impatient with declared proofs of the existence of God. He disliked the writings of Cardinal Newman, “but revered the writings of St. Augustine” (Malcolm, op. cit., p. 71). Yet he cannot be called a Christian. The verdict of Malcolm was:

I believe that he looked on religion as a ‘form of life’ (to use an expression from the Investigations) in which he did not participate, but with which he was sympathetic and which greatly interested him. Those who did participate he respected – although here as elsewhere he had contempt for insincerity. I suspect that he regarded religious belief as based on qualities of character and will that he himself did not possess. (Malcolm, Memoir, p. 72)

Wittgenstein has been described as a tortured genius, subject to bouts of depression and suicidal tendency as a consequence of his homosexual disposition. One interpretation is that he was ashamed of the disposition, from which he wanted to escape. He contrasts with the more suave and socialising heterosexual figure of Bertrand Russell (1872-1970), his former tutor who became a figurehead of the radical liberalism gaining popularity at the end of Russell’s long life. It is possible to criticise both of these entities for lifestyle problems without denying their intellectual merits.

See further Ray Monk, Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius (1990); Monk, Bertrand Russell: The Ghost of Madness, 1921-1970 (2001).

Kevin R. D. Shepherd
January 11th 2010

ENTRY no. 8

Copyright © 2010 Kevin R. D. Shepherd. All Rights Reserved.

G. E. Moore and Commonsense

By analytical philosophy, Bertrand Russell, Bryan Magee, G. E. Moore

G. E. Moore

The Cambridge philosopher George Edward Moore (1873-1958) is strongly associated with the advocacy of “realist” commonsense. Together with his acquaintance Bertrand Russell, he originated the analytical philosophy that took strong root in Britain. There was a difference in the outreach of those two entities. Russell became an international figure, whereas the influence of Moore was largely confined to Britain.

Both Moore and Russell started their academic career at Cambridge as neo-Hegelians. These inhabitants of Trinity College were inheritors of the nineteenth century overspill from German idealism, a format found in British philosophy by the end of that century. Moore went to study at Trinity in 1892, adding philosophy to classics. There he met Russell and J.M.E. McTaggart (1866-1925), the latter a critical Hegelian and a lecturer at Trinity. Moore subsequently broke away from the influence of McTaggart (who eventually reaped a strong degree of oblivion for many years). This development prompted Russell’s similar revolt against the idealism of McTaggart. Yet unlike Russell, Moore nurtured a continuing aversion for empiricism, a trait which he acquired from the neo-Hegelians.

In his dissertation of 1898, Moore turned against Kantian idealism, confirming his new angle in realism. He became a Fellow of Trinity, and eventually a lecturer. His intellectual development is not straightforward, and has been subject to some generalisations. Only his friend Russell identified fully with the empiricist tradition stemming from Locke, Berkeley, and Hume. However, Moore did share in the “realist” reliance on sense data, which now became the operative mode of analysis, disdaining metaphysical elements.

While Russell moved into the rather cerebral world of mathematical logic, Moore established an analytical approach to ethical problems in Principia Ethica (1903), which transpired to be his most famous work. He has been credited with a “Platonistic” view of good as an objective but indefinable property. In this work he argued that ethical disputes cannot be resolved by criteria of the natural or social sciences; ethical values should be acknowledged in their own right.

From 1925 to 1939, Moore was Professor of Philosophy and Logic at Cambridge. By that time he had developed his “commonsense” realist position, first explicitly expressed in lectures of 1910-11. Here he remarked: “What is most amazing and most interesting about the views of many philosophers, is the way in which they go beyond or positively contradict the views of Common Sense” (Moore, Some Main Problems of Philosophy, London: George Allen & Unwin, 1953, p. 2).

This attitude was consolidated in his subsequent paper A Defence of Commonsense (1925). He was not a systematic philosopher. “Moore’s legacy is primarily a collection of arguments, puzzles and challenges” (Tom Baldwin, “George Edward Moore,” Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy).

Moore was a friend of Wittgenstein, possessing a different temperament. They were not always in agreement. In other directions, Moore rejected the logical positivism that gained strong ground at Oxford via such entities as Alfred Ayer.

“Although Moore always denied that philosophy is just analysis, there is no denying that it [analysis] plays a central role in his philosophy” (Baldwin, art.cit.). See further P.A. Schilpp, ed., The Philosophy of G. E. Moore (1942); T. Baldwin, G. E. Moore (London, 1990); Baldwin, ed., G.E. Moore: Selected Writings (London, 1993).

Moore felt that the commonsense boundaries of experience were sufficient to explain existence. He exercised a strong influence on the Oxford academic philosophers, firstly the logical positivist wave, and afterwards the linguistic analysts like J. L. Austin.

Accusations have been made that philosophy became “talk about talk,” a phrase associated with the analysis of concepts and speech. That disposition has frequently been critical of anything idealist or rationalist, or even scientific. Moore was content to analyse statements in ordinary language, without relying on science or any form of technical logic. This commonsense outlook was favoured by the Oxford philosopher J. L. Austin, who furthered the resistant attitude to logical positivism (and criteria of scientific standards dominating speech). The new trend viewed “philosophical problems” as confusions caused by the inappropriate use of language; the unravelling of the confusion via linguistic analysis was now believed by Austin and others to dissolve the problems.

The mergence of commonsense and linguistic analysis has been criticised in other directions, as not being any path to deliverance from problems. The nature of commonsense analysis has come under attack for being a simplistic mode, not the ultimate recourse. For instance, “modern science has shown that behind our moment-to-moment experience of the everyday world teem truths and realities that commonsense is totally unaware of, that are frequently astounding and often counter-intuitive, and sometimes deeply difficult to grasp even when we know them to be true” (Bryan Magee, Confessions of a Philosopher, London: Phoenix, 1998, p. 52).

The attack on commonsense advocacy in British philosophy alighted upon Bertrand Russell’s denial of commonsense in his well known book The Problems of Philosophy (1912). Russell here emphatically stated that “commonsense leaves us completely in the dark as to the true intrinsic nature of physical objects.”

Professor Bryan Magee adds in supplement: “The greatest tragedy of academic philosophy in the twentieth century in the English-speaking world is that it was developed as a profession largely by people to whom these things were not obvious, people who did not themselves have philosophical problems and who – perhaps for that reason – operated with a commonsense view of the world, and equated philosophical activity with conceptual analysis” (Magee, op. cit., p. 53).

A further observation is that the alternatives to commonsense philosophy seemed to be contradicted by religious elements, the absolute idealism of Hegel, and the oracular writings of Nietzsche (ibid.). Therefore everything else was eschewed as inferior or confusing.

British conceptual analysis (or “commonsense”) leaves rather large areas of questioning in matters that should not be taken for granted. For instance, the Magee formulation prompts a query as to the identity of the people who do experience “philosophical problems.” Perhaps Magee is one of them; that contingent may also include more obscure persons possessing a valid angle on the resolution of problems.

Kevin R. D. Shepherd
December 8th 2009

ENTRY no. 4

Copyright © 2009 Kevin R. D. Shepherd. All Rights Reserved.

Bertrand Russell

By analytical philosophy, Bertrand Russell, Bryan Magee

Bertrand Russell

One of the most influential modern philosophers was Bertrand Russell (1872-1970). Some commentators say that he was the dominant figure in twentieth century philosophy. This being so, one is obliged to probe some aspects of his career.

Bertrand Russell was the grandson of Lord John Russell, being reared in a British aristocratic milieu, and eventually inheriting the status of an Earl. However, he allied himself with the Labour Party, being radical in his views. At Cambridge he studied mathematics, a subject which he adapted to philosophy. In 1898, Russell abandoned his neo-Hegelian idealism in favour of realism as the “new philosophy of logic.” He acknowledged the importance of science in this transition.

His early work Principles of Mathematics (1903) became famous for contending his subject in terms of a close relationship to logic. This has been described as logicism, meaning the view that mathematics is significantly reducible to formal logic. Russell arrived at his basic view of “mathematical logic” quite independently of the obscure Gottlob Frege (1848-1925), the German mathematician of Jena University who converged in this form of conceptualism (or logicism).

In collaboration with Alfred North Whitehead, Russell subsequently produced Principia Mathematica (1910-13), a three volume work that became celebrated in terms of a “new logic.” He was viewed by his admirers as a British version of Aristotle. Russell has been described as deducing mathematics from logic. “One of the effects has been not so much to subordinate mathematics to logic, which is what Frege and Russell wanted, but to subordinate logic to mathematics” (Alfred Ayer, “Frege, Russell and Modern Logic” in Bryan Magee, The Great Philosophers, Oxford University Press, 1988, p. 308).

Bertrand Russell became a Professor of Philosophy. From 1910 to 1915 he was a lecturer at Cambridge University, during which period he was tutor to Wittgenstein, whom he regarded as a genius. He departed from mathematical logic and composed some books on general philosophy, including The Problems of Philosophy (1912). His Oxford follower Alfred Ayer referred to this work as “the best introduction to philosophy that there is” (ibid., p. 309). Russell here describes “various traditional philosophical problems from an empiricist standpoint” (ibid.). He was continuing the British empiricist tradition associated with Locke, Berkeley, and Hume. Russell is celebrated as having inspired the analytic philosophy favoured by universities, sharing this honour with G. E. Moore.

Later, Russell veered away from philosophy, becoming engaged in political and educational activities having a flavour of radical socialism. He gained fervent admirers and strong critics. “The permissive society was implemented by Bertrand Russell, whose advocacy of free love is memorable for the misery created in his family” (Shepherd, Some Philosophical Critiques and Appraisals, 2004, p. 251). He married four times and became notorious as a womaniser. His book Marriage and Morals (1929) gained brickbats. In contrast, he later acquired the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1950.

Russell was eventually hero-worshipped by the younger generation of the 1960s, who uncritically assimilated his political and social views, including the unwise disposition for free love that created so many problems. Russell was not only a symbol of pacifism and the campaign for nuclear disarmament, but also more questionable deportment.

He wrote some further works on philosophy, including his famous History of Western Philosophy (1946). This book has received very differing assessments. The publisher Routledge refers to “the best-selling philosophy book of the twentieth century and one of the most important philosophical works of all time” (Routledge edition, 2000). A conflicting commentary came from Professor Bryan Magee, who says that Russell’s History is “overrated.” One judgment here is: “The treatment throughout is superficial, not to say flip” (Magee, Confessions of a Philosopher, London: Phoenix, 1998, p. 220).

Furthermore, “for all his [Russell’s] genius he radically fails to understand Kant, and consequently the whole tradition of philosophy that has grown out of Kant’s work; his entire chapter on Schopenhauer is consistent with his never having read that philosopher’s main work” (ibid., p. 221).

These are weighty criticisms indeed. One is obliged to look closely at Magee’s personal description of Russell, whom he met towards the end of the latter’s long life, in 1960 to be precise.

Magee found that Russell was an elegantly courteous host, mentally alert at the age of 87, a fluent and humorous talker, and possessing a social record of impressive contacts the world over. For instance, Russell described how he had taught philosophy to the poet T.S. Eliot at Harvard. “He did not tell me what I subsequently discovered, that he [Russell] had had an affair with Eliot’s wife while the Eliots were living under his roof” (ibid., p. 264).

The subject gains due praise from Magee for his career achievements. However, significant contradictions for contemporary philosophy are emphasised. Although Russell is regarded as the founder of modern analytic philosophy, “he never regarded analysis as an end in itself” (ibid., p. 216). Bertrand Russell started language philosophy, without viewing this as the objective, unlike his successors. More pointedly, “to the end of his days, he believed that the purpose of philosophy was what it had always been thought to be, namely the understanding of the true nature of reality, including ourselves” (ibid., p. 217). In that respect, Russell was a polymath, not a specialist, and certainly not a linguist.

Even more pointedly, Bertrand Russell was one of the few who “understood clearly – what many people to this day fail to understand – that science of itself does not, and never can, establish a particular view of the ultimate nature of reality.” What science actually does is to “reduce everything it can deal with to a certain ground-floor level of explanation” (ibid., p. 218).

The Magee version of this perspective is memorable:

To many working scientists, science seems very obviously to suggest an ultimate explanation, namely a materialist one; but a materialist view of total reality is a metaphysics, not a scientific theory; there is no possibility whatsoever of scientifically proving, or disproving, it. (Magee, Confessions, p. 218)

Magee finds the last philosophical book of Russell to be significant for reasons not always proclaimed. My Philosophical Development (1959) is described as a “substantial work aimed at the serious student of philosophy” (Magee, Confessions, p. 220). The deduction is made that Russell was here acknowledging how his empiricist quest had failed. In the last paragraph, Russell states that “empiricism as a theory of knowledge has proved inadequate” (ibid., p. 222). Magee concludes that Russell had finally arrived at a view which Kant had made a starting point in his own critical philosophy generations before. Moreover, Magee urges that Russell failed in pursuing logic and the philosophy of science, neither of these avenues having afforded a due explanation of known reality (ibid., p. 219).

Ultimately, Magee views Russell as being impractical. His “genius was for solving theoretical problems” (ibid., p. 268). “He treated practical problems as if they were theoretical problems; in fact I do not think he could tell the difference” (ibid.). This made Russell a “blunderer” in private and public life. “He had so little practical intelligence” (ibid.).

The mathematical genius was thus at a disadvantage with the real life problems of philosophy, which is not merely an academic or theoretical pursuit. Russell knew the limitations of language analysis; he apparently grasped, in the end, that his empiricist profile was a limitation. His flawed psyche (meaning his instinctual excesses) has been lamented by some commentators.

Cf. The Autobiography of Bertrand Russell (3 vols, London 1967-69). See also A. D. Irvine, ed., Bertrand Russell: Critical Assessments (4 vols, London, 1999).

Kevin R. D. Shepherd
December 4th 2009

ENTRY no. 3

Copyright © 2009 Kevin R. D. Shepherd. All Rights Reserved.