Andreas Saugstad wrote this article.
Two of the most prolific and famous philosophers in the twentieth century were Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) and Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951). Russell was Wittgenstein’s teacher in Cambridge around 1911. Russell was the leading philosopher in England at that time, and one of the world’s leading thinkers in philosophy of mathematics and logic.
Wittgenstein grew up in a rich family in Vienna, and his father had sent him to Manchester to study engineering. But during his studies Wittgenstein became more and more interested in questions related to the foundations of mathematics, philosophy and logic.
One day Wittgenstein appeared in Cambridge, and Russell soon discovered that this young man had an intense interest in philosophy as well as a special talent. Wittgenstein could talk non-stop, he even once followed Russell to his home continuing the discussions while Russell changed clothes to attend a dinner party, and when Russell came back, Wittgenstein was still there, wanting to continue the discussion.
Both Russell and Wittgenstein contributed substantially to the field of philosophy: Russell on the philosophy of mathematics, theory of language and knowledge, as well as number of books on ethics, religion, and also pieces on social justice and the public understanding of science. Wittgenstein made contributions to a number of fields that scholars of philosophy acknowledge as central to the discipline, and his Philosophical Investigations is almost a bible for certain scholars.
Both Russell and Wittgenstein hold a place in the history of Western thought may be compared to such ingenious thinkers as Plato or Immanuel Kant. Wittgenstein was more an unhappy pupil of Aristotle (who he never read): in his philosophical works he wrote on theoretical issues, living the contemplative life which Aristotle emphasized -bios theoretikos. Unlike Russell, Wittgenstein never engaged in public debates, he was a philosopher investigating the issues because of their existential importance.
The old Enlightenment idea of the public intellectual was alien to Wittgenstein. Russell, however, became an example of a humanitarian public intellectual, much like Noam Chomsky and Johan Galtung today. He tried to change the world, by using the mind; Wittgenstein, however, tried to calm his mind, by returning to the world, that is, the practical life.
A while ago I did an interview with Ray Monk in Southampton, England. Ray Monk is Professor of philosophy at Southampton University. He is one of the world’s leading authorities on Wittgenstein and Russell, arguably the world’s leading expert on the lives of these two thinkers. Monk has written the wonderful biography of Wittgenstein, Ludwig Wittgenstein.
The Duty of Genius.
This work describes the passion of Wittgenstein: his love for thinking, search for truth and ethical perfection. Monk has also written two volumes on Russell, less favourable perhaps, but still a portrait of one of the great minds in British and European intellectual history. I talked to Monk about Wittgenstein and Russell, and he showed me an interesting contrast between Russell and Wittgenstein.
As we will see, Wittgenstein was focused on moral perfection in a more introspective sense, while Russell concentrated very much on communitarian duties that Wittgenstein was less concerned with.
For Wittgenstein the main goal in life was to improve himself. As a motto for his Wittgenstein book, Monk chose a quote from Otto Weininger: “Logic and ethics are fundamentally the same, they are no more than duties towards oneself.” For Wittgenstein the grand duty in life was to reach intellectual clarity and improve oneself ethically. Wittgenstein could perhaps have said that the essential is to be able to look oneself in the mirror without being ashamed. Honesty was essential to Wittgenstein.
In his youth, this sometimes led to strange episodes, as when he once met a monk in Cambridge, and was obviously sceptical to monasticism and the monk’s values. Wittgenstein simply told the monk straightforward that he didn’t like him, and asked him to read a book in some exact science in order to learn what honest intellectual work was like. Wittgenstein’s treatment of this religious man was no doubt bad, but it illustrates an important point: Wittgenstein’s direct attitude to life, and his intense demand for honesty. Authentic life required this, according to Wittgenstein.
Russell was somewhat different. Wittgenstein struggled to improve himself, but as Ray Monk told me, Russell tried to change the world . Russell wrote:
“Three passions, simple but overwhelmingly strong, have governed my life: the longing for love, the search for knowledge, and unbelievable pity for the suffering of mankind.”
Russell wanted to change the world, as I said, he was a person who became a public intellectual. Like Chomsky, Galtung, Cornel West or Subcomandante Marcos, he wished to use his mind to serve humanity. The world is full of suffering -that is obvious, but if this is something we really understand in our hearts, why don’t we do more to help? In certain countries in Africa, 25 percent of the adult population have the HIV virus.
24,000 people die of hunger each day, approximately 1,2 billion people live in extreme poverty. Instead of giving money to the poor and building up an infra-structure in the urban parts of America, the Republicans want to increase the military budget, although USA already spends $ 2 million per minute on the military. Social justice, non-egalitarian social orders and structural violence are issues that may be addressed by intellectuals. Ronald Reagan was a politician that made many intellectuals react. In their book A Brief History of the Western World, Greer and Lewis write the following about the Reagan period:
“The Congress did make cuts for social programs, including those for the “truly needy”; but Reagan insisted, at the same time, on large increases in military spending.”
This is recent history. But when Russell was at the peak of his career other problems existed. One such issue was the development of nuclear weapons. Russell demonstrated against nuclear weapon, he founded the Pugwash movement, and he was imprisoned for his protests against the First World War. Russell was active in his resistance against the Vietnam War and concerned with international politics.
He tried to make a tribunal to convict those American politicians who had supported and directed the Vietnam War. During the Cuban missile crisis, he wrote telegrams to Khrushchev and Kennedy, and he wrote many articles for the general public. Russell placed a great emphasis on education, and started an experimental school. He received the Nobel Prize in literature in 1950, and in his acceptance speech he emphasized social activism and the dangers of nuclear war. In 1954 he delivered a famous talk on BBC, where he condemned the Bikini H-bomb test.
Simply speaking, he was a man with philosophical skills, and he tried to use some of those skills in order to improve the world. Whether we agree with all of Russell’s opinions or not, we should admit that he was brave. The Guardian recently portrayed Chomsky as “the conscience of a nation” (USA), and Russell was the conscience of England in a similar way.
For Russell, the duty was to improve the world. But the duty of Wittgensteinian genius was to reach intellectual clarity and solve the problems of philosophy. Wittgenstein was more of a hermit intellectual. Not at all like the ancient Christian mystics like St Anthony or Evagrius, but he lived for a while in a hut in Skjolden in Norway.
A story tells us that one time one of the local inhabitants came by Wittgenstein’s hut, and probably made some noise. Wittgenstein got distracted, and went out saying “Do you know what you have done? I have spent two weeks on the argument that you now have disturbed!” When philosophers were gathering in Cambridge, Wittgenstein said “I will make sure I am in London at that time” and so he was.
He lived in another small house alone in Ireland, and while being a professor in Cambridge, Earlier in life, he also spent a time in Trattenbach, an Austrian village, where he was pretty much a loner, working as a school teacher. When he later returned to Cambridge, he did not participate as much in college life as others.
Wittgenstein said that the revolutionary man would revolutionize himself. He followed Descartes’ slogan: “Conquer yourself to conquer the world.” Wittgenstein wrote: “Work on philosophy is…actually more of a// a kind of//work on oneself.” He wanted peace of mind: “The real discovery is the one that makes me capable of stopping doing philosophy when I want to. The one that gives philosophy peace, so that it is no longer tormented by questions bringing itself to question.”
Russell, on the other hand, was more progressive as an intellectual, he wanted peace in the world. Russell was active in politics, he socialized, he was married and became a father. Wittgenstein never married, and he never had kids. The Australian writer Kimberly Cornish has claimed that Wittgenstein was under cover in Cambridge as a spy for the Soviet Union, leading the Cambridge spy ring. But until we have more evidence for such claims, they seem unlikely and Wittgenstein was not a Marxist.
One of Marx’ central claims was that philosophers should not just describe the world, but also change it, and Wittgenstein was opposed to this. While he emphasized the practical side of language -praxis- in his philosophy of language, he also said that “philosophy… leaves everything as it is”. Revolution of the self was Wittgenstein’s central idea in relation to ethics, inspired by Schopenhauer he seems to have taken a contemplative somewhat passive acceptance of the world’s states of affairs and cultural practices as an approach to life. Rather than being a philosophe making a political revolution, he believed in self-transformation.
That is perhaps why Wittgenstein’s diaries are full of introspective remarks about ethics and self-improvement:
“My vanity makes everything dirty” “Self-knowledge and humility are one”. “Understand who you are, and you will see that you in all ways are a poor sinner.”
One might think that Russell’s life was much more useful than Wittgenstein’s. But Ray Monk takes a different stance. Monk claims that much of Russell’s work was done out of vanity. He also thinks that even though Wittgenstein did much evil (like slapping a sick school child with cancer), there was always something very human about this evil. Russell, on the other hand, receives less of Monk’s sympathy.
He told me a story to illustrate this. After Russell divorced Dora Black, Dora had an affair with another man. Under mystical circumstances, this man died. Dora turned to Russell to receive support, and sent him a letter. Russell, however, gave this letter to his lawyer, asking him what they could get out of it.
Monk’s conclusion is that Russell sometimes could do evil things, and this evil could now and then be incomprehensible. As Monk said, one has to wonder how a flesh and blood person could do these things. Monk’s two volumes, available from Vintage, show how Russell could mistreat women and how his children had difficult times.
So there seems to be an interesting contrast between Wittgenstein and Russell. Russell stated an example on how to be concerned with other people’s suffering and social problems. Wittgenstein, with the danger of lapsing into idiosyncrasy, was concerned about changing himself. Russell, according to Monk, never really succeeded in improving himself, and Wittgenstein never tried to change the world. This opens for quite an interesting question: what is important -changing oneself or changing the world?
And is there any point in changing the world if you are evil at a personal level? And what is the point in trying to improve oneself, like Wittgenstein did, if it doesn’t affect a world full of suffering and injustice?
After the second world war, Russell was starting an organization for peace and freedom. When Wittgenstein heard this, his response was negative. Russell asked him if he should start an organization for war and slavery instead, and Wittgenstein said: “Yes, yes, rather that.” This reaction seems to be quite strange. But Wittgenstein did perhaps think that when you try to improve yourself, and leave the world alone, you will at least not make it any worse. Schopenhauer recognized that the world is a world of suffering, and his reaction was to withdraw in contemplation.
Wittgenstein was marked by Schopenhauer’s pessimism. Many people in different life situations have withdrawn from politics and social life: hermits and monks are the most obvious examples, but also today a number of scholars choose to spend time on their scholastic questions withdrawing from the bios politikos. Few people try to radically improve the world. Plotinus, to take another example, defended an ethics of withdrawal and passivity. This Platonist philosopher from the second century AD believed that one should seek contemplation and peace of mind, there may even be cases where someone is dying and one should remain passive.
This, as I see it, represents a complete misunderstanding of morality. We should do whatever we can to help others, and this should not just be theory but lead to concrete actions and constructive proposals. Whether we are writers, intellectuals, teachers, doctors, social workers or nurses, there is always something we can do. It is an objective fact that human life is marked by subjective experiences -more or less pain and more or less pleasure. A truly moral individual should take this into account, he must -if he can- engage with the world because there are other conscious beings there.
Other people are suffering, and an intellectual who doesn’t use his skills for the benefit of others somehow seems to overlook this central point. A radical philosopher must take the Umwelt, a world of other humans filled with joy and suffering, into account. As Karl Marx wrote:
“Philosophers have just interpreted the world in different ways, what matters is to change it.”
Perhaps some of Marx’ conclusions were too extreme, but unfortunately, many intellectuals are marked by the attitude Wittgenstein and Schopenhauer shared: lack of initiative in changing society and improving reality. I think Russell is quite interesting here. Ideas are indeed weapons, and an article or a book may change society or at least partially improve it. One of the special features of human life is that human beings have a mental life, and that our thoughts and emotions may have causal power, and when we act or write we may transcend the state of affairs.
Ideas changed everything when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, they did when Dietrich Bonhoeffer resisted Nazi Germany and they were important when Subcomdante Marcos and the Zapatista movement started the fight for justice in Mexico. Ideas and mental power have changed the prognosis of cancer patients and given us many of the ideas of universal human rights defended by the UN. Ideas are not just ideas, they are weapons, in principle a thinker may change world history.
A philosopher who does not want to want to think for the benefits of others, seems to either reject the idea that we have duties to help others, or reject the claim that ideas actually can change the world. Ideas can be the enemies of men, but also tools for improvement. Russell gave us a vital example here: how ideas and thinking can be put into practice, and communicated to the rest of society.
One may also wonder: when people are passive in spite of tremendous sufferings in the surrounding world, are their moral psychologies working appropriately? Empathy, when really experienced, will in many cases lead to action.
Thus I do think Russell had a fundamental insight: intellectuals have the duty to sometimes try to change the world, not just oneself. Ideas do not just belong to the life of a quasi-hermit like Schopenhauer or Wittgenstein, but may enter the public realm through books, pamphlets, newspapers, and today websites, and may change the social order.
Still, there is reason to be critical. Because even though Russell engaged in a social and humanitarian project, his life also had a dark side. According to Professor Monk, the key to understanding Russell is his vanity, and we know how he exploited women and how his son suffered. Dora Black, one of Russell’s women, never looks happy on the pictures in Monk’s biography.
Like the psychologist John B Watson, Russell gave his son a behaviourist upbringing, the result according to what Monk has told me, was fatal unhappiness. Russell’s son John, raised through methods from new psychology, eventually became a schizophrenic, and John’s daughter Lucy took her own life.
So here we seem to have a classical case of someone who tries to change the world (and in the case of Russell even the global order), while not being able to change himself or deal with those close to him. It shows us a dichotomy between the Wittgensteinian and Russellian ideas of virtue: Russell emphasised public virtues, Wittgenstein emphasised the individual and private realm.
Wittgenstein is the philosopher who emphasized that language is a social activity and has to do with a public practice, nevertheless I think no one can deny that he never had any ambitions of being a public intellectual. He never wrote a newspaper article, and most of his works (in total about 14,000 pages) were published by his friends after his death. Wittgenstein wrote on such topics as the nature of language, linguistic rules, knowledge and topics relating to the philosophy of mind, he never wrote on social or political philosophy or issues relating social justice.
Russell’s life may remind us of a situation many have experienced: a successful husband (or wife) who does not manage to deal with his (or her) intimate relationships. It reminds us of Gandhi, who perhaps is one of the most admirable persons in history, a thinker, a politician, a defender of human rights, working against imperialism.
Gandhi preached non-violence and struggled for independence in India -but some claim that he beat his wife. And the Russell case may perhaps sometimes remind us of Bill Clinton: the man who conquered the world and became president, but saw the world as his own candy store, he cheated on his wife and placed his own family in a difficult situation.
Some may want to adopt Wittgenstein’s attitude: do not try to change the world, try to begin with yourself. Perhaps, if you desperately try to engage with the world, you will end up losing yourself. As Jesus said: “What good does it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul?” (Matt 16:26) And you may follow the wisdom that Jedediah Purdy was told by his parents: settle down in one part of the world, and make that part a little more sane.
But this is not enough. The sufferings of mankind are so tremendous that anyone with a talent or a drive, should try to change the circumstances. We are, to use Heidegger’s words, being-in-the-world. It is our duty to change. While Jesus warned about losing oneself, he also radically changed people and tried to assist the needy, sick and poor in their needs. As The Apostle John said: “If anyone has material possessions, and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can he have the love of God in him?” (1 John 3:17).
The solution here must be a synthesis, not an either-or in this case. We may have a tendency to think we should either improve ourselves or change the world. Either the public realm or the personal.
A passionate philosopher, a truth-seeking human being, should wish, if not succeed in, doing something useful for society. You don’t have to beat your wife, because you are struggling for social justice. And it is possible to find time both on your family, and try to do something for the benefits of society at large. Peace is a process which has both a local and a global aspect: peace with one’s family and loved ones, and peace in politics and as in global harmony and justice.
And don’t tell me we have to choose between Wittgenstein’s and Russell’s perspectives. It is actually when we have the Wittgensteinian attitude of serious concern for personal moral improvement that we can do the tasks Russell suggested appropriately. If Monk is correct in saying that Russell was driven by vanity, I do agree it throws negative light over Russell’s endeavours. We should not act out of vanity, but rather out of empathy. Empathy is a powerful drive for changing the social order. Any Russell, Cornel West or Noam Chomsky will necessarily meet a number of individuals, and if people see empathy and love shining through the fight for justice, the message will be much more powerful.
Gandhi said “my life is my message,” and then both the status of the self and one’s inner moral psychology as well as overt, public actions of utility become significant in a radical way. Empathic love is powerful both in relation to oneself, to one’s wife, to one’s family or children, but also a motivational drive to work for humanity in general. Love can lead to ethical virtues that will be beneficial both for life in the private realm, and for the world at large. We are being-in-the world and being-with-others; in such a cosmos, empathic love dissolves the dichotomy presented in this essay.
The road less travelled is not that of Wittgenstein or that of Russell. The moral path is the synthesis of the ideals of these two thinkers. The dialectics of Russell and his student, can be integrated into a higher synthesis: empathic love. We all fall a short of such great ideals, but those who can try to combine these two spirits will indeed be able to make a radical difference.
In his diaries Wittgenstein wrote: “Embrace another human being for its sake, not your own”.
Unfortunately, Wittgenstein did not extend this wisdom to his intellectual activities. Let us think not just for our own sake, but do it also for the sake of others.