Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Bertrand Russell: Portrait Of The Philosopher As A Young Man

One of the classes I'm teaching in Korea this semester is called "Analytic Philosophy", and one of the textbooks I'm assigning is Bertrand Russell's book "My Philosophical Development."

In Chapter 3, "First Efforts," Russell records his first youthful doubts about conventional ideas.

"I began thinking about philosophical questions at the age of fifteen. From then until I went to Cambridge, three years later, my thinking was solitary and completely amateurish, since I read no philosophical books, before I read Mill's Logic in the last months before going to Trinity... I minded my theological doubts, not only because I had found comfort in religion, but also because I felt that these doubts, if I revealed them, would cause pain and bring ridicule, and I therefore became isolated and solitary. Just before and just after my sixteenth birthday, I wrote down my beliefs and un-beliefs, using Greek letters and phonetic spelling for purposes of concealment."

To which I have to say, uh, really?

The Greek letters thing is a nice, vivid, picturesque image, but you have to wonder if someone as smart as Russell obviously was, even at the age of 16, would have thought that this method would actually fool anyone in his household.

To review some relevant facts:

Russell's grandfather had been the Prime Minister in the 1840s and again in the 1860s. The family had been raised to peerage with the rise of the Tudor dynasty....i.e. a few centuries before Young Master Russell turned 16. It's safe to say that every male in the Russell clan since time immemorial would have received a good classical education. It doesn't seem like much of a stretch to say that they would have all been sufficiently used to reading Greek that any of them would have been able to tell that they were reading English words transliterated into the Greek alphabet if they'd just glanced at the page for long enough to read a sentence while shuffling around papers looking for a misplaced cup of tea.

(And that's just the boys. I also wonder if, in a family as progressive as the Rusells--keep in mind that Russell's godfather was John Stuart Mill--the education of the girls might have been considerably better than average as well.)

All of which makes me wonder: was young Bertie really particularly concerned about concealment, or did he just enjoy the romantic gesture of making a big elaborate show of concealment?

Moving on to the actual contents of the journal--which Russell faithfully reproduces in full in My Philosophical Development, while making embarrassed noises about the confused, undeveloped nature of a lot of the ideas therein--we find a lot of skepticism about traditional Christian dogmas, but Russell doesn't go quite so far at this point as to doubt the existence of God per se. When it comes to morality, we see a lot of the the sharp polemical humor you get in his later writings. For example, in one passage, he talks about his Presbyterian grandmother's view that, instead of using reason to tell right from wrong, one should follow the 'inner voice' of conscience, then a few paragraphs down he casually refers to "this inner voice, this God-given conscience which made Bloody Mary burn the Protestants..."

Everywhere, he protests in a fairly hyperbolic way about his dedication to rationality, e.g. "April 29. In all things, I have made the vow to follow reason, not the instincts inherited partly from my ancestors and gained gradually by selection and partly due to my education. How absurd it would be to follow these in the questions of right and wrong."

Keep that passage in mind while we go back and take a closer look at the bit about his grandmother:

"My rule of life which I guide my conduct by, and a departure from which I consider as a sin, is to act in the manner which I believe to be most likely to produce the greatest happiness considering both the intensity of the happiness and the number of people made happy. I know that my grandmother considers this an impractical rule of life and says that, since you can never know the thing which will produce the greatest happiness, you do much better in following the inner voice. The conscience, however, can easily be seen to depend mostly upon education (as, for example, common Irishmen do not consider lying wrong) which fact alone seems to be quite sufficient to disprove the divine nature of conscience."

Some thoughts about this:

(1) He considers his ideas about this subject to be shocking enough to go in his secret journal of forbidden thoughts, but he had at least one argument about it with grandma?

(2) The racism here is pretty awesome. It seems like a safe guess that the young English aristocrat writing this journal had never actually met a 'common Irishman', nor quite likely had he ever met anyone who had ever met one, so you have to wonder where exactly he got his information about The Irish And Their Propensity To Lie.

(3) He claims to have read no philosophy books at this time, and maybe he hadn't, but somehow or another he seems to have absorbed the utilitarian ideas of Bentham and Mill in full, complete with the precise characteristic turns of phrase and careful qualifications--"the greatest happiness considering both the intensity of the happiness and the number of people made happy."

(4) However that may have come about, it's awfully interesting that Russell's steadfast dedication to his sacred vow to follow reason alone in determining the difference between right and wrong, sweeping aside all the mental clutter derived from his ancestors and his education, led him to replicate, in a meticulously exact fashion, the precise moral opinions of his godfather, John Stuart Mill, and Mill's godfather, Jeremy Bentham.


gwern said...

The men in the family no doubt had such things as discretion and respect for privacy. A paper in Latin lettering can be read instantly and involuntarily; we all have read things accidentally, in a tiny fraction of a second. We cannot help it. But in Greek letters, one must try. Enough time elapses for the previously mentioned mental qualities to restrain one from peeping through private papers.

Did it work? Who knows. But it's not obviously wrong. And it is obviously a good guard against any female pryers (who in a large household are more to be feared, anyway).

Ben said...

Fair point.

William Moore. said...

Logicomics has it that B. Russell wrote in his journal in Greek as well. I don't know how well they did their research though.

TaiChi said...

Hi Ben,

It seems something left out of 'My Philosophical Development', but included in Russell's autobiography is that "I used at this time to write down my reflections in English written in Greek letters in a book headed 'Greek Exercises'". So this is essentially a schoolbook, which nobody would be much interested in.

(1) Might not Russell's rationalistic idealism be what Russell wished to keep hidden, rather than his early utilitarianism? After all, J.S. Mill was his Godfather, presumably well known to the family, so it seems unlikely that his utilitarian thoughts would've been heretical.

(2) I read the passage as indicating that people are educated in the view that Irishman think nothing wrong with lying, but that this education is wrong (and so the conscience it informs is not divinely guided). Doesn't it make more sense for Russell to be offering a received falsehood in this context, given that he's scorning the reliability of conscience?

(3, 4) It's entirely possible he picked this up through conversation, not necessarily over ethics itself, but politics perhaps. Actually, it seems possible that his Grandmother explained Russell's own vague ideas back to him in utilitarian terms, and that the turns of phrase, fresh in the mind, were congenial to representation of his views.

Ben said...

You're probably right about (1), (3) & (4), although (2) seems pretty clear in context--his point is that what one's conscience dictates re: right & wrong is a matter of a combination of our evolutionary inheritance and what people have been taught to believe, and that Irishmen not thinking that lying was wrong was an example of how conscience can vary culturally. On the rest of it, I guess I need to track down a copy of Russell's actual autobiography and read it.

(Not sure if I'll be able to do that in Korea, but maybe when I'm back in the States for winter break.)

TaiChi said...

Ah - I misread you on (2), as speculating that the racism was Russell's. My apologies.

I doubt you'll find much more in the autobiography than I've said: from what I recall and from skimming my own copy, that's about it.

clovis simard said...

L'essence du sentiment religieux est indépendante de tous les raisonnements de toutes les mauvaises actions et des crimes, de tous les athéismes: Il y a là quelque chose d'autre sur quoi glisseront éternellement les athées qui éternellement resteront à côté du sujet.
(L'Idiot de Dostoievski)