You would not want to be him
- Bertrand Russell: A Life by Caroline Moorehead
Sinclair-Stevenson, 596 pp, £20.00, September 1992, ISBN 1 85619 180 X
Bertrand Russell’s first and formative love affair was with symbolic logic. But the relationship, though fertile, was troubled. Beginning in rapture, as he moulded and extended the new concepts and techniques, sweeping away the barren detritus of two millennia, the affair eventually foundered on a stinging paradox, unexpected and intractable, which abruptly took the shine off the whole thing. His devotion crumbled, and he was driven to seek comfort elsewhere, never quite regaining his former idealism. It must have been very disillusioning, and no doubt tainted his other romantic involvements, which also began in ecstasy and then became mired in refractoriness of one kind or another. For the antinomial is not adorable. And if logic can’t be trusted, what can?
Vol. 15 No. 3 · 11 February 1993
In his notice of Caroline Moorehead’s Bertrand Russell (LRB, 19 November 1992), Colin McGinn relates that Russell ended his collaboration with A.N. Whitehead after Principia Mathematica, indeed ended his work in logic, as a result of not finding a satisfactory way out of the paradox of self-exclusive sets. It may be that Russell ‘lost interest … in formal logic’ after that. But his and Whitehead’s each going his own way is another story. Russell put about more than one version of why he and Whitehead did no work together after PM was published. In his obituary of Whitehead in Mind he claimed that the effort of producing PM ‘was so severe that at the end we both turned aside from mathematical logic with a kind of nausea.’ Furthermore, ‘it was … inevitable that we should turn aside in different directions, so that collaboration was no longer possible.’ In his Autobiography Russell printed a letter (of 1917) from Whitehead complaining about the use the former had made (in Our Knowledge of the External World, 1914) of some of the latter’s ideas. Russell remarked that Whitehead’s letter shows how ‘vexed’ he was: ‘In fact, it put an end to our collaboration.’ Then, running through subsequent references to Whitehead in the Autobiography is a vivid strand of bitterness on both their parts regarding Russell’s pacifism and arrest in World War One (Whitehead was King and Country). At one point, Russell, writing to Ottoline Morrell in 1918 and thanking her for her friendship: ‘I am wonderfully touched by what all of you have done; the people I don’t trust are the philosophers (including Whitehead).’
In addition, I had this story from Dr Satish Kapoor, when he taught at the University of Washington (Seattle) in the early Sixties. Kapoor had done a thesis on PM, and had a chance – this would have been in the Fifties – to ask Russell why he and Whitehead did nothing together after it. ‘Well you know,’ said Russell, and one can hear the reedy tones floating high, ‘in cosmology, there are jelly men and there are billiard-ball men. Whitehead was a jelly man, whereas I, well, I have always been a billiard-ball man. When the fact of this difference was borne in upon us we of course recognised that further collaborative work was completely out of the question.’