Russell and Ramsey

Ray Monk

  • Russell’s Idealist Apprenticeship by Nicholas Griffin
    Oxford, 409 pp, £45.00, January 1991, ISBN 0 19 824453 3
  • Philosophical Papers by F.P. Ramsey, edited by D.H. Mellor
    Cambridge, 257 pp, £30.00, August 1990, ISBN 0 521 37480 4
  • The Philosophy of F.P. Ramsey by Nils-Eric Sahlin
    Cambridge, 256 pp, £27.50, November 1990, ISBN 0 521 38543 1

It may surprise those who do not already know it that the world centre for the study of the life and work of Bertrand Russell is at McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario. Shortly before he died Russell sold his vast collection of manuscripts and personal papers to McMaster for a huge sum of money in order to finance the various projects of the Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation. The sale has proved fortunate, not only for the work of the Peace Foundation, but also for Russellian scholarship. For the Bertrand Russell Archives, established at McMaster under the leadership of Kenneth Blackwell, have made exemplary use of the material acquired for them.

Since 1983, the Archives have been publishing, at irregular intervals, volumes of The Collected Papers of Bertrand Russell, which will ultimately comprise about fifty volumes and contain practically every short piece Russell ever wrote, including a great deal that has so far been unpublished. Volume I contains his youthful diaries, his undergraduate essays and the papers he wrote before becoming a fellow of Trinity, then the edition splits in two parts: Volumes II to XI containing his philosophical work, and Volume XII onwards his ethical, personal and political papers. As is often the case with this sort of multi-volume edition, the order in which the volumes have been published is somewhat erratic, but it is already clear that the series is a model of its kind – it is certainly the envy of anyone who has had to work on Wittgenstein’s Nachlass. Each volume has been skilfully edited and handsomely produced.

Sadly, this superb resource has up to now been greatly under-used by philosophers at British universities, among whom Russell’s work has not been much in vogue for a long time. The editors of the Collected Papers, therefore, have not only had to provide the source material for a close study of Russell’s work: they have also had to generate discussion of it themselves. This they (and others) do in Russell, the journal of the Archives, which comes out twice a year. In addition, there have now been two full-length studies of the work published in the Collected Papers, written by members of its editorial team. Two years ago we had Bertrand Russell: The Psychobiography of a Moralist by Andrew Brink, a lecturer in English at McMaster who helped to edit Volumes I and XII of the Collected Papers. This presented a Freudian analysis of the personal papers published in those volumes.

Nicholas Griffin’s Russell’s Idealist Apprenticeship has a similar genesis, although in terms of philosophical sophistication and scholarly meticulousness it is a much weightier proposition. Griffin is a philosophy professor at McMaster and was one of the editors of Volume I of the Collected Papers, and one of only two editors of Volume II, which presents for the first time the work that Russell did during his years as a Hegelian Idealist, between 1894 and 1898. The papers published in Volume II amply reward Griffin’s interest in them. They show the astonishing swiftness of Russell’s mind and his equally astonishing ability to write lucidly and at length on ideas that were quickly evolving, Griffin’s book presents, in a quite masterly fashion, a discussion of the development of these ideas, setting them in context and criticising them where appropriate. It is one of the finest works of philosophical scholarship I have ever read.

The period of Russell’s thought covered by Griffin has been ill served by commentators, not least Russell himself, who dismissed his work from this period briskly and unfairly in My Philosophical Development: he describes his fellowship dissertation of 1895 as ‘somewhat foolish’, his Hegelian essay of 1897 ‘On the Relations of Number and Quantity’ as ‘unmitigated rubbish’, and his work on the philosophy of physics from 1896 to 1898 as ‘complete nonsense’. Russell, though, is his own most unreliable critic, and his account of his intellectual development during the years covered by Griffin is particularly prone to exaggeration and distortion. Russell liked to present each change in his intellectual stance as a more or less sudden flash of insight. His story of how, as an undergraduate, he became an Idealist is a notable example. Having been persuaded by his tutor James Ward that the metaphysics of Idealism turned on the validity of the ontological argument, he was, so the story goes, in the middle of writing a paper for Ward criticising Descartes’s version of the ontological argument when he interrupted his work to buy some tobacco. On his way home he experienced a sudden conversion that threw him into a state of ecstasy. ‘Great God in boots, the ontological argument is sound!’ he cried and flung his tobacco tin in the air.

He also liked to present his development away from Idealism as a clean break, which occurred some time in 1898. At the end of that year he said, ‘Moore and I rebelled against both Kant and Hegel. Moore led the way, but I followed closely in his footsteps.’ Thanks to Moore, he could, he said, ‘rejoice in the thought that grass is really green, in spite of the adverse opinion of all philosophers from Locke onwards.’

These stories of Russell’s have been repeated many times and are now part of the folklore of 20th-century philosophy. It is one of the great merits of Griffin’s book that it replaces them with an account which, while certainly less dramatic, is more detailed, more coherent, more plausible and ultimately more interesting – a story not of sudden transformations but of a series of insights, not handed over by G.E. Moore, but won by Russell himself in the course of a sustained and productive engagement with some of the most intractable problems of abstract thought.

The centre of Griffin’s account and the thread that gives some kind of unity to Russell’s very varied output during these years is his struggle against the theory (which he inherited from Bradley and McTaggart) of internal relations, the characteristically Hegelian doctrine that all relations are between intrinsic properties For Griffin, part of Russell’s genius consists in the lengths to which he was prepared to take a theory in order to test it, which meant, therefore, that it was a struggle to supplant any theory tested in this way. Accordingly he first traces the labyrinthine paths into which Russell’s adherence to the theory of internal relations took him, and then presents the twists and turns that were necessary before he could abandon it.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

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