You would not want to be him

Colin McGinn

  • 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?

Along with Frege, Peano and others, Russell constructed the basic machinery of modern mathematical logic, clearing up the defects of the older syllogistic logic, and putting the new logic to use in the analysis of mathematics itself. The programme was to provide a rigorous demonstration of classical mathematics in purely logical (including set-theoretic) terms, thus setting mathematics on a transparently secure foundation. Russell also applied his bright new tool to ordinary language, notably in the Theory of Descriptions, which enabled him to keep meaning denotational while avoiding ontological inflation, and in the treatment of epistemological and metaphysical questions, where he thought it could be used to reconstruct our empirical knowledge on a rational basis and to dissolve some ancient puzzles about substances and properties. The logic of relations, in particular, played a key part in releasing him from a youthful infatuation with Hegelian monism. Mathematical logic was going to be the basis for an entire new philosophy, in which traditional quandaries would be replaced by systematic advances. With logic by his side there was nothing Russell could not do.

During the composition of Principia Mathematica, aided by Whitehead, his old teacher, Russell spent ten hours a day for ten years in the most intimate communion with the forms and relations of predicate calculus and set theory, defining and deducing, covering thousands of pages with dense symbolism, wearing out (as he later said) his intellectual vigour. He gave logic the best years of his life and the purest part of his soul. What a nasty shock, then, to discover that a relatively simple logical manipulation issues in outright inconsistency. Consider all the classes that are not members of themselves, such as the class of dogs, which is not itself a dog, and try to combine them into a big class of their own, the class of classes that are not self-members: then you have the result that this class is a member of itself only if it is not and is not only if it is. Contradiction! Red alert! The concept of a class reveals itself as intrinsically paradoxical, hardly a solid basis for mathematical truth. Surely there must be some mistake, some slip of reasoning: at least that is what Russell thought when he first stumbled on the problem. Unfortunately, the reasoning is sound, and it shows that our naive understanding of the principles of class formation, heretofore adopted by Frege and Russell, is flawed. Nor did Russell succeed in producing a cogent resolution of the problem, the Theory of Types looking too much like an ad hoc stipulation to prohibit us from trying to talk about the offending class. The self-evident had self-destructed. ‘Arithmetic totters,’ as Frege famously wrote when Russell sent him the bad news. So, we must presume, did Russell’s adulation of his now not-so-perfect Significant Other. Formal logic did not have the beauty and virtue Russell fondly supposed; and its excellence in other respects could only heighten his sense that the holy was corrupt at the core. The simultaneous disenchantment with his first wife, Alys, must have felt minor in comparison with this intellectual trauma, Russell’s theoretical passions running a good bit deeper than his personal ones. No wonder he spent three thwarted years struggling to patch things up, fretting over a blank sheet of paper for days on end, settling in the end for a messy compromise. Not surprisingly, too, he lost interest in the further developments in formal logic that followed Principia. The magic, as they say, had gone. (Gödel’s incompleteness result could only salt the wound.)

I dramatise all this because the biography of a great thinker like Russell must make some attempt, however ham-fisted, to reconstruct the role of ideas in the thinker’s life – the living role of ideas. Russell’s relations with purely intellective objects are at least as significant, emotionally and otherwise, as his movements, marriages, finances and what not. Some language must be found to confer colour on these inner adventures and disappointments, to compensate for the invisibility of the events. And we need some understanding of how the life of the pure intellect intersects with the overt life of practical action. How do those abstract journeys bear upon more worldly concerns? Russell’s pained adherence to rationality in social and political matters, for example, must have been influenced by his experiences with formal logic. The power of the new logic in theoretical areas would naturally fuel a belief in the political benefits of rationally-driven progress: first the pure science, then the ameliorative practical applications. Logic, after all, is about the rules of correct reasoning, how to derive only truths from other truths. On the other hand, the discovery of the paradoxes would sound a note of caution about excessive reliance on abstract principles, encouraging pragmatism over foundationalism. It might, indeed, undermine faith in the competence of pure reason to encompass every human concern: beyond the rim of coherence, clarity and certainty there yawns an abyss of chaos, obscurity and doubt – the place where religions traditionally step in. Russell’s yearning for a religious creed compatible with his atheism has its counterpart in his logicism and its limitations: a solid core of rigorous truth surrounded by a murky penumbra of unruly forces. (Wittgenstein’s distinction between saying and showing has a similar architecture.)

If this sounds romantic or pretentious, it is entirely in keeping with Russell’s own attitude to his life. High-flown, intense, earnest, idealistic, tragic – this was the quotidian language of Russell’s official self-conception. Caroline Moorehead’s biography is at its least comfortable in dealing with this aspect of its subject: it is as if she can’t quite see where all this is coming from, and is mildly embarrassed by it. Nor does she make any real effort to relate Russell’s theoretical convictions to his general outlook. She is much happier detailing the superficial facts of Russell’s life – which she presents with efficiency and balance. Her narrative flows smoothly along, with places, people and books each assigned their proper slot, but venturing little in the way of character analysis or critical judgment. There are potted summaries of Russell’s main ideas, which are generally accurate but rather wooden, more fact-checked than felt, and a good deal of solid documentation, some of it new. The women in Russell’s life, in particular, are roundly and sympathetically represented, though their faults are by no means glossed over. There is nothing much wrong with the book, as far as it goes: but it is left to the reader to try to fit the pieces together into an intelligible whole. Ray Monk’s biography of Wittgenstein succeeded in bringing an enigmatic character to life, but Moorehead’s book leaves the real Russell just out of reach – a mere compilation of deeds and words. She seems not to be able to enter into Russell’s anguished cerebral psychodrama in the way Monk did with Wittgenstein – perhaps because Monk is himself a philosopher. And without a more serious attempt to reconstruct Russell’s inner life much of the reportage makes him look at best hyperbolic and at worst silly (which is not to say that he was never either of these things).

The book is most successful in conveying the man when Russell and his intimates are able to speak for themselves. Fortunately, the two pivotal people in Russell’s life – Ottoline Morrell and Ludwig Wittgenstein – gave rise to a revealing quantity of writing, mostly in the form of letters. Here is a typical passage from Bertie’s love letters to Ottoline:

How can you ask if your love can be anything to me? It can be everything to me. You can give me happiness, and what I want even more – peace. All my life, except a short time after my marriage, I have been driven on by restless inward furies, flogging me on to activity and never letting me rest ... You can give me inward joy and expel the demons.

Or again: ‘Life is like a mountain top in a mist, at most times cold and blank, with aimless hurry – then suddenly the world opens out, and gives visions of unbelievable beauty.’ This exalted tone changes, sadly, as the affair wears on and Ottoline’s refusal to leave her husband has its inevitable effects: ‘It is your gradual and inexorable withdrawal – like the ebbing tide – that keeps me over and over again at the very last point of agony. You flatter yourself in thinking that you can imagine passionate love; as far as I have observed, you can’t imagine it a bit.’ Then, a week later: ‘I always bring great misery to anyone who has anything to do with me; I can’t help communicating the inward misery which I carry about like the plague.’ And: ‘Forgive me dearest – I will try to love you with more moderation ... it is like a child crying because its parents have left it in the dark all alone.’ That last sentence may show more psychological penetration than Russell knew: the death of both his parents when he was four was undoubtedly a large factor in determining his lifelong feeling of loneliness and isolation.

Russell speaks often of the good effects Ottoline had on him, opening him up to less cerebral concerns, but it is pretty clear that his disappointment in this affair went very deep, and when it foundered he seems to have become a different person. He had passed from an emotionally deprived childhood to a barren first marriage, and was clearly in desperate emotional shape when, at the age of 37, he fell in love with Ottoline. She was not, by her own admission, much interested in sex in general and did not find the sexually needy Bertie attractive in that way; nor did they get to spend much time together. Russell obviously found the whole thing excruciatingly painful, and never seems to have got over it.

At the same time Russell’s friendship with Wittgenstein was having its own exhilarating and devastating impact on him. He writes:

Wittgenstein has been a great event in my life ... I think he has genius. In discussion with him I put out all my force and only just equal his ... I love him and feel he will solve the problems that are raised by my work, but want a fresh mind and the vigour of youth. He is the young man one hopes for.

But when Wittgenstein pointed out some fundamental defects in Russell’s nascent Theory of Knowledge he told Ottoline he was ready for suicide, saying later: ‘My impulse was shattered, like a wave dashed to pieces against a breakwater.’ The episode caused him to conclude grimly: ‘I saw that I could not hope ever again to do fundamental work in philosophy.’ These words should not be taken lightly: what had sustained him for so many years – his logical and philosophical power – was now shown to be wanting. And it could not have helped that Wittgenstein openly disapproved of so much in Russell’s character. Like Ottoline, Wittgenstein first offered Russell hope and passion, but then promptly stomped him into the ground. Together the two of them extinguished something deep and good in Bertie’s character. Thereafter he becomes a less sympathetic figure, more publicly directed, more cynical, less pure, worldlier. Perhaps neither of them realised how vulnerable the towering intellect who wrote Principia Mathematica was; in any case, they made a mess out of the man – however inadvertently.

There are suggestions in Moorehead’s book that Russell did not find his own brilliance easy to live with. This strikes me as true and important; we should not underestimate the burdens imposed by Russell’s exceptional degree of brain power. Many of his most troublesome traits – troublesome to others and to himself – stem from this central fact: his obsessiveness, perfectionism, self-absorption, censoriousness, abstractedness, morbidity, coldness, loneliness, extremity. With great powers of concentration and mental capaciousness come many unhappy side-effects: everything gets magnified and nothing is forgotten; the mental volume is always set too high; life becomes a ceaseless effort to cure restlessness; over-exertion alternates with boredom; an alienating impatience infects every human dealing. When Virginia Woolf expressed admiration for what she called Russell’s ‘headpiece’ she used a telling expression: his intellect was a kind of appendage or incubus, inharmoniously attached, and too great a weight for a mere mortal to bear. He was like one of those people described by Oliver Sacks – someone with an abnormally enhanced mental faculty who must somehow find a way to accommodate their affliction of riches. In pictures of him you can see it raging uncontrollably behind his eyes, as if he were a man possessed. He was top-heavy with brains.

Two contrasting impressions emerge from Moorehead’s account of Russell’s life, more strongly than from his own autobiography. The first is the sheer abundance of the man: the enormous number and range of things written, the strenuous and varied political activity, the roll-call of top-notch friends, the many love affairs, the sheer quantity of packed years. It all seems exemplary and enviable, the perfect intellectual life. Who now has Russell’s intellectual and moral authority? He was presciently on the right side, politically and morally, nearly all the time, and he made fundamental contributions to human thought. But there is another impression, scarcely less evident: that of an appalling emotional bleakness, both personal and doctrinal. Some of this is traceable to overt difficulties, like the failure of his marriage to Alys or his experiences during the First War; but some of it is harder to explain, and requires a deeper account. No doubt, as remarked, his early orphaning contributed to the feeling of desolation, but his brother Frank did not share Bertie’s arctic temperament. There was, by many accounts, a chilly charmlessness to him, despite the humour and love of children, a dry awkwardness of body and soul, which repelled the kind of natural affection he craved.

My guess is that this was the natural consequence of a certain childlikeness combined with a searing and ruthless intellect. His mind simply would not permit him the kind of looseness necessary in dealing with ordinary human relations; he was always held in its exacting grip. Every sentence uttered had to be perfectly formed, and every personal encounter slotted into some wider theoretical vision of what Life was about. It was all part of some Principia Russellia, axiomatically laid out, fully articulated, The stern intellect was for ever vigilant. Even his strictly philosophical work sometimes reads as if it would have benefited from less scorching brilliance and more bemused plodding; for everything is required to submit to the omnipotent Russell intellect. He commended Wittgenstein for his commitment to the edict ‘understand or die,’ but in Russell’s case, unlike that of Wittgenstein, this took the form of a systematising reductive urge that does not always suit the topic. His mind, he said, was like a searchlight, sharp and focused – but it was a searchlight that burned as well as illuminated, consumed as well as created. Russell was a victim of his own particular form of genius. You would not want to be him.