by Mark English
I recently wrote a piece in which I looked at the views of some 20th-century thinkers on language, metaphysics, science and philosophy. My main focus was on the logical empiricists and Ludwig Wittgenstein.
In his youth, Wittgenstein worked with Bertrand Russell and then subsequently with the Vienna Circle before taking a rather different direction from the late 1920’s on. But the main elements of his thinking remained the same: his distrust of metaphysics, for example. In fact, he even came to fault his earlier work (which was heavily influenced by Russell) as being too metaphysical.
My piece triggered some discussion about the extent to which Russell’s outlook was truly scientific. It was suggested that Russell, driven by unwarranted metaphysical assumptions, got things fundamentally wrong about language and logic. By contrast, the later Wittgenstein and the Oxford school of “ordinary language” philosophy which developed in the 1950’s got things fundamentally right.
In the course of the discussion, I made the point that Russell was committed to a view of the world based on evidence and reason and was an energetic advocate for science and for a scientifically-oriented philosophy. This claim prompted the suggestion that, while Russell’s attitude to science was indeed positive, he made a fetish of science.
There is something in the fetishization idea. As an adolescent Russell had found comfort in the certainties of mathematics. And it takes a particular kind of mentality to be so concerned about the foundations of mathematics as to devote many years to attempting to elaborate a sound logical basis for the discipline.
This story, however, can be told many ways. And it is not just a story about one man’s obsessions. It was a remarkable time in European intellectual circles, and arguably what made it so remarkable was the way that scientific advances in a range of areas – especially historical linguistics, textual criticism, natural history, mathematics and physics – mattered for the general culture. There was a sense that the world had changed irrevocably since the Enlightenment; that it was no longer business as usual. Too many established truths had been shown not to be truths at all. Given this intellectual upheaval, it is no wonder that the new world sensed or foreseen by many 19th-century thinkers and artists was a disturbing and disorientating one.
Despite their various metaphysical commitments or assumptions, I don’t think it plausible to see the likes of Frege and Russell in the same terms as the Hegelian metaphysicians who preceded them, if only because they were committed to scientific methods and open to the possibility that their various projects would fail. They were intellectual pioneers; explorers, not dreamers. And they were bound in a very productive way to the spirit of their time.
The grand plan to create an explicit and complete logical system which could encompass arithmetic was demonstrated – by Kurt Gödel in the early 1930s – to be impossible. But, as Karl Popper pointed out, this is precisely how science works and progresses: by bold conjectures and refutations. Without the prior work by Frege, Russell and others, Gödel would never have come to devise his remarkable proof. And it’s not as if Frege’s and Russell’s work was successful only in this negative sense. After all, their technical achievements helped to lay the groundwork for – and even shaped in certain ways – the revolution in digital computing as well as providing fruitful ideas in specific areas (such as formal linguistics).
I certainly don’t want to mount a defense of Russell’s logical atomism. I see the whole project of trying to construct a perfectly clear and perspicuous language (even if it is meant only for scientific purposes) as being doomed to failure. Russell’s own views changed over time. In his later works, he defends an approach to human knowledge which is (in my opinion) eminently defensible.
Russell was drawn to a correspondence view of truth. And, though his original insistence on a structural isomorphism between language and the world may not be sustainable, it seems to me (as it did to figures as different as Karl Popper and J.L. Austin) that there are objectively existing states of affairs – in both ordinary and scientific contexts – to which most statements refer and against which their truth or correctness (or whatever term might be appropriate) depends.
I see this view (or something very like it) as a prerequisite for science and scholarship as those pursuits have been traditionally understood. Sure, such a view has been challenged by various forms of idealism and radical epistemologies over the years. It is currently under sustained attack. But it is, I think, worth defending.
Much of Austin’s work is descriptive and classificatory and, as I understand it, Austin saw himself as doing something like proto-science. He believed that his work on language would eventually form the basis for a mature science, and indeed his work has been picked up by linguists as well as by philosophers. Austin’s intellectual orientation was clearly quite different from Wittgenstein’s. Both thinkers had an appreciation of the power, complexity and expressiveness of natural language. But Wittgenstein was not interested in the sort of painstaking explicitness and classificatory thoroughness to which Austin aspired.
Previously I contrasted Russell’s scientific view of the world with Wittgenstein’s view. I am now suggesting a similar (but more limited) contrast between Austin and Wittgenstein. I want to make it clear, however, that I am not taking sides with respect to the thinkers involved. There is value both in Wittgenstein’s and in Austin’s writings on language. It’s just that their respective approaches and orientations are different.
On Russell and Wittgenstein, there are some issues on which I side with one, and some issues on which I side with the other. With respect to the status of science and scientific knowledge I am very much in Russell’s camp, not Wittgenstein’s.
Speaking in more personal and subjective terms, I am much attracted to Wittgenstein’s cultural views – notably to his cultural pessimism, and also to his quietism. By contrast, Russell’s style of social engagement and activism doesn’t appeal to me and I disagree with many of his stated views and opinions (on education for instance). Of course, there are many issues on which Russell and Wittgenstein agree. In particular, they had very similar views on what philosophy cannot do. And, in the end, they both rejected logical atomism.
I have been looking lately into another instance of Russell engaging closely with a younger intellectual. This case may throw some light on his interactions with Wittgenstein.
Just as his intellectual and personal relationship with Wittgenstein eventually turned sour, so too did his relationship with the writer, D.H. Lawrence. At one stage they were planning to give a series of public lectures together on social and political themes.
About this time – it was 1915 – Wittgenstein, who had volunteered (despite being eligible for a medical exemption) to join the Austro-Hungarian army, was recovering in a Krakow hospital from an industrial explosion at a repair workshop to which he had been assigned near the Eastern Front. He was soon to volunteer to join a frontline howitzer regiment in Galicia and subsequently won awards for bravery in the wake of a devastating but ultimately unsuccessful Russian attack. He continued fighting on the Eastern Front right up until the truce with Russia in 1917. In early 1918 he was transferred to the Southern Front and fought in the Alps, until he was captured only days before the end of the war.
Russell and Lawrence were living at the time in a very different world. They were both opposed on moral and political grounds to engaging in military service. But their perspectives proved to be too far apart for them to cooperate in any serious way. At first Russell had been impressed by Lawrence, but he turned against him and his ideas.
One common focus was the possibility – or necessity – for transcending the “prison” of the self but (in the words of Ray Monk) “the ideas each developed as to how this should be done were radically divergent, so much so that each could, in the end, regard the other as the very personification of the kind of egoism they sought to transcend.”
Russell remained tied to his intellectualism whereas Lawrence was committed to the importance of passion and the unconscious.
According to Jonathan Rée, Russell’s preliminary notes for his 1916 anti-war lectures were based to a large extent on “Lawrence’s contrast between “possessive” impulses, which lead to violence and war, and “creative” ones, which blossom into love and true democracy.” But Lawrence rejected the synopsis. He called on Russell to ditch “mental consciousness” in favour of the “blood knowledge that comes either through the mother or through sex.”
Unsurprisingly, Russell was not impressed. He confided to Ottoline Morrell: “Lawrence is just as ferocious a critic as Wittgenstein… [B]ut I thought [Wittgenstein] right and I think [Lawrence] wrong.”
Lawrence responded to Russell’s rejection of his ideas by saying that he “would rather have the German soldiers with rapine and cruelty, than you with your words of goodness.”
Lawrence’s reaction parallels a famous remark which Wittgenstein made to Russell. The occasion was their meeting in August 1922 in the Austrian Alps, where Wittgenstein was having a very frustrating and unhappy time teaching in an elementary school. Russell was passing through Austria on his way to an Italian summer school of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, and he arranged to meet up with Wittgenstein.
The encounter was not a success. Wittgenstein found Russell’s most recent philosophical work to be glib and shoddy, and he ridiculed the very idea of a League for Peace and Freedom.
Russell: “I suppose you would prefer a League for War and Slavery.”
Wittgenstein: “Much rather, much rather!”
Rée spells out the significance of this last remark very well:
[Wittgenstein] was not entirely serious, of course: it is blindingly obvious that peace is better than war, and freedom preferable to slavery, just as health is better than disease, and happiness preferable to depression. But he was not joking either: genuine political differences, he thought, are not going to be resolved by statements of the obvious. In any case he respected the virtues of old-fashioned statesmanship: circumspection, diplomacy and proper caution about the unintended consequences of political action. Presenting oneself as a supporter of “Peace and Freedom” was an exercise in smugness and self-advertisement rather than a heroic act of moral or political virtue, or a substantial contribution to the common good. Russell might be an atheist in theory, but he seemed to be conducting himself like a self-righteous parson.
There is another parallel between Lawrence and Wittgenstein that may be worth mentioning here: their respective views of the self.
Aidan Burns comments (in his book, Nature and Culture in D.H. Lawrence) that Lawrence’s view of the self “bears an uncanny resemblance to the view of the self outlined by Wittgenstein in [the] Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.”
Wittgenstein talked about the “truth of solipsism” which cannot be expressed but which makes itself manifest. “The world is my world… I am my world…” (5.62, 5.63). This attenuated, “philosophical” self “is not the human being, not the human body, or the human soul, with which psychology deals, but rather the metaphysical subject, the limit of the world – not a part of it.” (5.641).
Lawrence also saw the self as inexpressible. And he felt that, with respect to depicting the self, the novelist had a distinct advantage over the philosopher. Shorn of philosophical commentary and moralizing, the novel permits the self to become manifest without being described.
I can’t say for sure that Lawrence’s and Wittgenstein’s views on the self are as close as Burns suggests or exactly how they would relate to Russell’s view. But it is significant that the issue of moralizing – which can be symptomatic of a certain form of egoism – has come up again here.
Even if Russell was not quite as smug and sanctimonious as Jonathan Rée makes him out to be (I don’t think he was), he is vulnerable to this line of criticism. Certainly he did play the sage and indulge in a certain amount of moralizing in his political work and writing.
By contrast, Wittgenstein did not moralize at all as far as I know. And nor did Lawrence – in his best fiction, at any rate.