Bertrand Russell in November 1950, having been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Photo by Bettmann/Getty


The politics of logic

Should philosophy express the national character of a people? Bertrand Russell’s ‘scientific’ philosophy was a bulwark against nationalism

by Alexander Klein + BIO

Bertrand Russell in November 1950, having been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Photo by Bettmann/Getty

In November 1914, Bernard Bosanquet delivered the inaugural address to the Aristotelian Society’s 36th session. An ageing titan of British idealism, Bosanquet called his talk ‘Science and Philosophy’. It was a broadside on Bertrand Russell’s now-legendary book Our Knowledge of the External World (1914) in which Russell sought to model a new ‘scientific’ method for doing philosophy that made the logical analysis of propositions fundamental. This logic-centric style would come to define what we now know as analytic philosophy.

Bosanquet’s opening complaint about Russell’s methodology was, surprisingly, political. He argued that the ‘scientific’ methodology would inevitably make philosophy ‘cosmopolitan in character and free from special national qualities’. Since logic, and science more generally, respects no political or cultural boundaries, Russell’s philosophy could never function as a distinctive expression of a people. This was a problem for Bosanquet. He held ‘that philosophy, being, like language, art, and poetry, a product of the whole man, is a thing which would forfeit some of its essence if it were to lose its national quality’. British idealism for Britons, and German idealism for Germans.

The cosmopolitanism that Bosanquet thought implicit in Russell’s philosophical methodology was no illusion. Two weeks prior to Bosanquet’s attack at the Society, Russell had delivered a lecture at Oxford that would be published under the title ‘On Scientific Method in Philosophy’. Today it is remembered as a call to arms for logical analysis and it largely restated, in a more pointed way, the methodological outlook of Our Knowledge. Russell’s essay is not overtly political. And yet privately, Russell told one colleague that the talk ‘was partly inspired by disgust at the universal outburst of “righteousness” in all nations since the war began. It seems the essence of virtue is persecution, and it has given me a disgust of all ethical notions, which evidently are chiefly useful as an excuse for murder.’ To another colleague, he described the lecture as ‘inspired by the bloodthirstiness of professors here and in Germany. I gave it at Oxford, and it produced all the disgust I had hoped.’

It might seem peculiar to find Russell talking about war and murder in connection with a lecture on – of all things –philosophical methodology. But one can see these concerns emerging directly in at least one passage in the lecture itself. Russell had drawn a contrast between his own scientific methodology and the methodology of those who incorporate a strong ethical element in their philosophy, likening the latter to The Grand Augur, a character from a story he attributed to the Chinese philosopher Chuang Tzu. The Grand Augur makes an obviously self-serving argument for butchering some pigs: these animals should be grateful to be slaughtered because it is always an ‘honour’ to ‘die on a war-shield’. Russell’s suggestion is that ethical philosophy offers little more than self-serving argument to justify nationalistic violence. What is more, Russell had held up Bosanquet himself as an example of the kind of moralising metaphysics he meant to repudiate. In private, Russell referred to the essay as ‘Philosophers and Pigs’.

The political anxieties at play begin to make sense when one bears in mind the timing of all of this. Bosanquet’s attack was delivered in the midst of the earthquake that was Britain’s entry into the Great War. The quake didn’t just shake soldiers on the battlefield. It also shook intellectuals, and would permanently change the direction of abstract pursuits that might seem highly remote from the concerns of warfare, like epistemology and metaphysics. For Russell, a crucial spark of the violence was nationalism, and he regarded scientific philosophy as a tool for opposing it.

At the time of Bosanquet’s Aristotelian Society address, his Philosophical Theory of the State (1899) had recently been published in its second edition. That work is often regarded as the highwater mark for idealist political philosophy. For Bosanquet, the ‘Nation-State’ was the ‘supreme community’ and ultimate source of authority. ‘Moral relations presuppose an organised life,’ he had contended, but an organised life is possible only in a national community. Especially during the First World War, this approach would be criticised for seeming to make international relations a matter of anarchy, and idealist advocacy for a strong state was seen as providing implicit support both for German bellicosity during the war and for Britain’s entry into it.

Britain joined the war four months before Bosanquet’s attack on Russell, and politics was unavoidable at the Aristotelian Society. The Society’s president that year was the Right Honourable Arthur Balfour, former Conservative prime minister, and a regular contributor to philosophical journals such as Mind. Balfour would shortly become Britain’s Foreign Secretary, a position he held through the remainder of the war. Meanwhile, Russell was already publicly associated with the push for British neutrality. Just after returning from Harvard University in the summer of 1914, he set about gathering the signatures of more than 60 dons at the University of Cambridge in a letter urging Britain to keep out of the war. Published on 3 August, the letter constitutes the only known such appeal on the part of academics.

The UK entered the war the next day. By the end of the week, the House of Commons passed the Defence of the Realm Act (DORA), which gave the government broad wartime powers – including censorship. In 1916, Russell would be dismissed from his post at Trinity College, Cambridge, following his conviction under DORA (and thanks in part to a campaign at the university led by another British idealist, J M E McTaggart). Russell spent six months in jail for his outspoken pacifism.

Recent historians have criticised analytic philosophy for disengaging from public affairs during the long 20th century. Some of its leading exponents, such as W V Quine, have been accused of cocooning themselves in a methodology they were pleased to call apolitical, particularly during periods when academics were coming under attack for purported Leftist sympathies, such as during the Joseph McCarthy era. One prominent critic (the philosopher John McCumber) has even suggested that, since anti-German sentiment in Britain during the First World War resembled in irrational vitriol the anti-communist sentiment during the McCarthy years in the US, the very founding of analytic philosophy itself – including in the hands of Russell – was also tainted with a self-serving political quietism.

But in fact that gets things almost exactly backwards. Russell’s antiwar protest was so extensive that it would cost him both his job and, for a time, his personal freedom. His theoretical antidote to the irrational, sectarian vitriol between European nations was to try to show how logic could function as an international language that could be used impartially and dispassionately to adjudicate disputes. His theoretical antidote was, in other words, analytic philosophy.

‘The truth, whatever it may be, is the same in England, France, and Germany … it is in its essence neutral’

The contrast with Bosanquet is again instructive. In a passage from Philosophical Theory of the State that would foreshadow his later attack on Russell, Bosanquet had decried ‘the idea of a universal language’ which, as ‘a substitute for national languages, … would mean a dead level of intelligence unsuited to every actual national mind, the destruction of literature and poetry.’ Russell didn’t intend logic to become the language of literature and poetry, much less to destroy those practices. But he very much intended his ‘scientific’ methodology to destroy a conception of philosophy as an articulation of a ‘national mind’.

The connection between Russell’s antinationalism and his metaphilosophy comes out sharply in his political writing of the era. In April 1915, he was again railing against the role philosophers were playing in promoting nationalism:

Leibniz, writing to a French correspondent at a time when France and Hanover were at war, speaks of ‘this war, in which philosophy takes no interest’. … We have travelled far since those days. In modern times, philosophers, professors and intellectuals generally undertake willingly to provide their respective governments with those ingenious distortions and those subtle untruths by which it is made to appear that all good is on one side and all wickedness on the other … I cannot but think that the men of learning, by allowing partiality to colour their thoughts and words, have missed the opportunity of performing a service to mankind for which their training should have specially fitted them. The truth, whatever it may be, is the same in England, France, and Germany, in Russia and in Austria. It will not adapt itself to national needs: it is in its essence neutral.

Today, with nationalism recrudescent, we are in a good position to appreciate that Russell’s insistence on the neutrality of truth was not mere platitude. Idealists of his time might not have gone quite so far as to deny truth’s neutrality outright, but they certainly saw overall philosophical excellence as distinctively tied to nationality. For Bosanquet and his allies, British idealism wasn’t just trying to get at the truth. It also aimed to express the national character of the British people.

Russell has often been regarded as someone who wanted to rid philosophy of ‘ethics’. But he advocated banning ‘ethics’ under a specific and narrow description of that enterprise, one that plainly resonated with his antinationalist politics. Compare the above quotation from Justice in War-time (1916) with this passage from his more overtly philosophical ‘On Scientific Method in Philosophy’ (1914):

Ethics is essentially a product of the gregarious instinct, that is to say, of the instinct to cooperate with those who are to form our own group against those who belong to other groups. Those who belong to our own group are good; those who belong to hostile groups are wicked. The ends which are pursued by our own group are desirable ends, the ends pursued by hostile groups are nefarious. The subjectivity of this situation is not apparent to the gregarious animal, which feels that the general principles of justice are on the side of its own herd. When the animal has arrived at the dignity of the metaphysician, it invents ethics as the embodiment of its belief in the justice of its own herd.

Russell in fact developed his own ethical theories; what he was most dismissive of was the specific kind of communitarian approach to value advocated by neo-Hegelians such as Bosanquet, an approach Russell saw as propping up the nationalist sentiments that had just exploded into a world war.

Idealism was not the only form of metaphysics that Russell saw as conducive to nationalism. He also went after the French philosopher Henri Bergson, as well as the Pragmatists in the US – both familiar targets for him. Russell had attacked Bergson in a series of talks in the spring of 1913, which were collected with several replies as a small book around the same time as Our Knowledge. While Russell was mostly concerned with the details of Bergson’s metaphysical system, he made his underlying political concerns clear at the outset. He portrayed Bergson as seeing successful ‘action’ rather than theoretical ‘understanding’ as the ultimate aim of philosophy, and this emphasis on action as inevitably leading to ‘imperialism’.

Bergson would become one of the most important French intellectuals arguing for military engagement during the Great War. In fact, two weeks after Bosanquet had condemned Russell’s cosmopolitanism, Bergson gave the presidential address to the Académie des Sciences Morales et Politiques which was quickly translated and published in English as The Meaning of the War (1915). Bergson’s bellicosity – in contradistinction from Russell’s advocacy of British neutrality – is on clear display in these lines from the book’s opening and closing paragraphs, respectively:

[T]here are forms of anger which, by a thorough comprehension of their objects, derive the force to sustain and renew their vigour. Our anger is of that kind. We have only to detach the inner meaning of this war, and our horror for those who made it will be increased. Moreover, nothing is easier. A little history, and a little philosophy, will suffice.
To the force which feeds only on its own brutality we are opposing that which seeks outside and above itself a principle of life and renovation. Whilst the one is gradually spending itself, the other is continually remaking itself. The one is already wavering, the other abides unshaken. Have no fear, our force will slay theirs.

Bosanquet’s defenders have often claimed that it is a misreading to suggest that his theoretical work actually justifies nationalism, and I don’t know of any evidence that he actively promoted militarism. But Bergson was extremely vocal in offering emotional and philosophical pleas in support of allied military action during the Great War, and in a way that helps make sense of Russell’s description of some philosophy professors as ‘bloodthirsty’. In February 1917, the French government even sent Bergson to personally lobby the US president Woodrow Wilson to get the Americans to join the war effort.

The British decision to join the war was a fundamentally different calculation than what France faced

I do not wish to suggest that Russell had all righteous justice on his side, and Bergson all wickedness. We do well to remember that France faced a starkly different set of concerns in entering the war. It shares an approximately 450-km (280-mile) border with Germany. The British Isles are and were, of course, insulated by water from such Continental strife, and to many neutralists the country stood to gain little from sending soldiers.

But on 3 August 1914, the day that Russell’s co-signed letter advocating neutrality was published, the British calculation suddenly became more complicated. The Germans declared war on France and announced their intention to attack through Belgium, whose own neutrality had been guaranteed by Britain since the 1839 Treaty of London. The Germans marched on Belgium the next day, and the British entered the war in a matter of hours, seeking both to honour the treaty and to protect Belgian ports that are directly across the English Channel. So the British decision to join the war was neither irrational nor unprovoked; but it was a fundamentally different calculation than what France faced.

Still, Russell’s continued advocacy of neutralism highlights his tendency to seek pacifistic solutions even to the most harrowing of international problems. And this brings us to Pragmatism. Russell criticised the Pragmatist theory of truth, and often used Pragmatism as a foil for his own analytic method. But his relationship with the American tradition is a more complex matter than has generally been appreciated. For one thing, the distinctive strain of pacifism Russell developed during the First World War had been directly influenced by William James, one of Pragmatism’s key architects. Shortly before his death in 1910, James had delivered two addresses on pacifism that had impressed Russell greatly, named ‘Remarks at the Peace Banquet’ and ‘The Moral Equivalent of War’. James’s pacifism was not built on unrealistic optimism, but on a frank acknowledgement of a very human thirst for violence:

The plain truth is that people want war. They want it anyhow; for itself; and apart from each and every possible consequence. It is the final bouquet of life’s fireworks. The born soldiers want it hot and actual. The non-combatants want it in the background, and always as an open possibility, to feed imagination on and keep excitement going.

James proposed diverting the human passion for violence away from fellow humans. Instead of conscripting young people into battalions, he advocated forming an ‘army enlisted against nature’ or something like what would become a national service corps. Although Russell did not find this solution fully satisfactory, he would later say in Why Men Fight (1917) that James’s ‘statement of the problem could not be bettered; and so far as I know, he is the only writer who has faced the problem adequately.’

James did not live to see the Great War. But he came from a family tradition of American progressivism that was very much in the cosmopolitan, internationalist spirit of Russell’s own ancestral ‘radicalism’, as it has often been called in the UK. Thirty years Russell’s senior and American by birth, James’s pacifism grew out of concerns about US expansionism in particular. He often voiced these concerns in a language of antinationalism that would have resonated deeply with somebody like Russell. Consider this passage from James’s ‘Address on the Philippine Question’ (1903) delivered at the fifth annual meeting of the Anti-Imperialist League in Boston:

Political virtue does not follow geographical divisions. It follows the eternal division inside of each country between the more animal and the more intellectual kind of men, between the tory and the liberal tendencies, the jingoism and animal instinct that would run things by main force and brute possession, and the critical conscience that believes in educational methods and in rational rules of right … The great international and cosmopolitan liberal party, the party of conscience and intelligence the world over, has, in short, absorbed us [‘us’ being anti-imperialists]; and we are only its American section, carrying on the war against the powers of darkness here, playing our part in the long, long campaign for truth and fair dealing which must go on in all the countries of the world until the end of time. Let us cheerfully settle into our interminable task.

Russell would be in lockstep with the ‘international and cosmopolitan’ idea that we are on a ‘long campaign for truth and fair dealing … in all the countries’. Thus James and Russell shared a pacifist cosmopolitanism that stands in stark contrast with Bosanquet’s grounding of all value inside a nation-state, and with Bergson’s ‘our-force-will-slay-theirs’ nationalism. It therefore seems unlikely that Russell had James in mind as one of the ‘bloodthirsty’ ‘pigs’ whose philosophy needed to be opposed on moralistic ground. Indeed, Russell was forthcoming about his longstanding admiration for James. Despite their real philosophical differences, we find Russell writing in the 1940s that ‘among eminent philosophers, excluding men still alive, the most personally impressive, to me, was William James.’

‘Two things which are at present increasingly disappearing: loving kindness and scientific impartiality’

Russell was highly critical of James’s book Pragmatism (1907), but that conflict was something closer to a civil strife. Russell could not accept that the truth of an idea is a matter of the idea’s utility (this was his gloss on James’s epistemology). A despot can make it very useful indeed for subjects to believe that the Dear Leader is a messenger of God, Russell worried. But it is worth remembering that Russell highly respected James’s pioneering work in empirical psychology, and connecting truth with utility was James’s own attempt to extract philosophical lessons from the best scientific enquiry. In fact, much like Russell, James often framed his own Pragmatism in direct opposition with the kind of neo-Hegelian idealism represented by the likes of Bosanquet.

Here one might charge Russell with a confusion. His central complaint with Pragmatism is that the peaceful resolution of disputes depends on the existence of a rational ‘standard’ that is independent of community opinion, and to which all can appeal. He thinks Pragmatism seeks such a standard, but fails philosophically to furnish one (whereas Bergson and Bosanquet do not even seek an international rationality). As he puts it elsewhere, ‘impartiality of contemplation is, in the intellectual sphere, that very same virtue of disinterestedness which, in the sphere of action, appears as justice and unselfishness’. Pragmatism is not impartial enough. And yet Russell apparently saw his own philosophical methodology as anything but politically neutral. He had an impartialist view of truth – but that commitment is embedded in a broader metaphilosophy that itself had an antinationalistic agenda, as we have seen. So how can Russell reconcile his own antinationalistic metaphilosophy with the idea that the truth must be an impartial matter?

Later in life, as the Second World War was winding down, Russell offered this way of handling the apparent tension:

If human life is again to become tolerable, mankind must acquire two things which are at present increasingly disappearing: loving kindness and scientific impartiality. These two things are inter-connected. At present, in every country, the schools teach a narrow nationalism and a view of history quite different from that taught in any other country. There is no scientific impartiality, and the departures from impartiality are such as to diminish loving kindness between nations.

Nobody could reasonably say that either antinationalism or cosmopolitanism is baked into Anglo-American philosophical methodology anymore. Russell was a pioneer in showing generations what it might mean to place formal logic at the heart of a ‘scientific’ philosophy. But a myopia has settled over our work in the intervening years.

We have retained much of Russell’s scientific methodology. Philosophical careers stand or fall now on the subtlety of one’s logical distinctions, or on the cleverness of the moves one makes on carefully circumscribed, technical matters. That kind of work is perfectly fine. But we have lost sight of the political rationale for laying out the rules of the philosophical game in the way Russell did, with an appeal to logic as an international language, and a standard of truth that is ‘the same in England, France, and Germany, in Russia and in Austria’.

What spectacles can help us correct our philosophical myopia? I suggest that historical reflection itself can play a salutary role. Unfortunately, history of philosophy has lately been under attack, so I will close with a few remarks on its utility.

In a widely discussed recent blog post attacking the history of philosophy as a useless undertaking, Michael Huemer of the University of Colorado Boulder tells us about the good kind of philosophy he thinks historians fail to produce:

[L]et’s suppose that you have a really good historian of philosophy, who does a really great piece of work by the standards of the field, which also is completely correct and persuasive. What is the most that can have been accomplished?
Answer: ‘Now we know what philosopher P meant by utterance U.’ Before that, maybe some people thought that U meant X; now we know that it meant Y.
This is of no philosophical import. We still don’t know whether X or Y is true.

Notice that this particular way of construing philosophy’s real job, as the evaluation of whether timeless theses are true, plain and simple, has not been universally shared. Certainly it was not Bosanquet’s view.

The metaphilosophy Huemer expresses is widely accepted today, and it is a descendant of Russell’s. But Russell’s view was different. He thought history of philosophy was valuable in itself, and made influential contributions in this area; and he thought even technical philosophy can be assessed in terms of its social and political consequences, which we get a grip on precisely by looking at history (a point Eric Schliesser has been exploring). So why did analytic philosophy modify its methodology over the years? That is a historical question, and one Huemer would have us pass over in silence, apparently, because ‘history of philosophy isn’t history or philosophy.’ But without answering this question, one should not feel confident in seeing Huemer’s metaphilosophy, popular as it is today, as inevitable.

Huemer aside, the lesson of my discussion isn’t that we should simply imitate Russell’s old project more faithfully. Today’s nationalist menace isn’t your grandmother’s. But Russell was right that even technical philosophy has political consequences, as Russell was keen to emphasise, and his unique way of embedding philosophical practice in a larger struggle against the bloodthirsty, against the war-mongers, against those who would ‘diminish loving kindness between nations’, is worth studying in its own context. Maybe we can learn something. For historical reflection stands to loosen hackneyed assumptions about what philosophical reflection is or can be. It stands to knock back the toxic complacency that says that philosophy inevitably must be, always has been, or can’t help but be, politically quiet.