1872 –1970

Russell’s philosophising was inspired less by the pain of philosophical doubt than by a dislike of current solutions. It has been said he misunderstood the Idealists. That was deliberate, he did not want to be drawn into their way of speaking about philosophical problems. The Idealist philosophy was a phenomenon of high culture, brilliant enough in its own terms but offering wisdom only to the thoroughly initiated.

Russell says about continental rationalism, as against Locke, that it all hangs on disputable arguments. His conception of philosophy was to make empiricism work logically. The philosophy Wittgenstein delineated in the Tractatus is a development of Russell’s logical atomism. The world is demystified and shown as a concatenation of atomic facts. It can be explained in terms of simple propositions being true or false. If we construct a framework within the context of which we can understand this then the universe can be demystified. Its metaphysical structure is the logical structure by which we come to understand anything about it. Understanding the logical structure dispels metaphysical disquiet.

As Fichte deduced the categories, so Russell deduced mathematics, from logic. One assumes logic is more self evident than maths. What is the value of this beyond that fascination of certain intellectual problems? As it turned out it did find considerable practical use. Any philosophy we believe to put in touch with ultimate truth that will excite us. But truth itself is very doubtfully achieved. His project ran into paradox which he resolved with some ad hoc rules.

Russell wanted to eliminate metaphysics by dispensing with the need for it. His vision had beauty, that Wittgenstein’s later philosophy did not entirely undermine.

Russell envisaged a culture of the future with a philosophy like his own providing the background. This philosophy would be characterised by hostility towards spiritual interpretations of the world. The authority of the Church would be replaced with a form of rationalism.

In 1916 Russell wrote that the main personal desire of his life was for power over people’s minds. Later he turned away from his admission. Arguably he had been mentally corrupted by the atmosphere of Bloomsbury. As litterateur he managed to achieve power like that of the French enlighteners, and some would say he abused it. We discern the will to power in those who explicitly repudiate it. Russell discusses romanticism as something egoistic, anarchistic and completely immoral. It appears that he feels the appeal of these values but rejects them. His criticism tends to equate romanticism with fascism, self divinisation and the “search for godlike exaltation”. Instead he exalted pity and universal love, reinforcing Christianity in the sense of the values of the weak.

It is easy to be ironic about pundits like Russell and other thirties populists intoxicated with the power of their rhetoric. Critics have remarked on Russell’s fickle mind. Rejecting Nietzsche, he makes do with alternatives. All sorts of ideas might serve his own will to power. The idea of an objective rationalism included ideas of progress, and elements of scientism, replacing religion with science and transferring religious emotions onto scientific objects. Socialism became so powerful in the world, partly because so many intellectuals, Russell, Orwell and other 20th century philosophes asserted it was necessary.

In his criticism of other thinkers Russell charts out a position and attitude of his own, untroubled by radical doubts. Overcoming Christianity brought a sense of defiance. The rebellious quality is lost when his ideas become convention and virtue.

Russell is an example of how in trying to do good it is your own personality you impress upon the world. In promoting happiness one promotes one’s own version for others to adopt. The alternative is cold calculating ides like Bentham’s and Kant's. Russell’s life was that of an aristocrat. The liberation offered is a future humanity more like him.

Marriage and Morals has been described as the most personal book he wrote. Its defence of adultery caused scandal in America. The moral climate of 100 years ago looks like superstition from today’s viewpoint. Russell’s values, as taught in a that book were in context a form of rebellion Now they are the established values of society everything is different.

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