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What the Swedes Read: Bertrand Russell

by Daniel Handler
Illustration by Charles Burns

What the Swedes Read: Bertrand Russell

Daniel Handler
9 Snaps
  • LAUREATE: Bertrand Russell (Great Britain, 1950)
  • BOOK READ: Sceptical Essays

In discussing Bertrand Russell, one of the few philosophers awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, I’d like to begin with a philosophical question, namely this: why is literature that is determined to face head-on the biggest questions the universe has to offer, without any complications of metaphor or narrative, too often written in loopy gobbledygook? Why do they do that to us? Are philosophers not setting out to make us feel clearer about something? And if they are, would it be possible to write it in a style that doesn’t force me to lean over the page holding both eyes open like the guy in A Clockwork Orange? I mean, here’s the first sentence of Immanuel Kant’s The Critique of Pure Reason, one of the absolute classics of philosophy.

Human reason, in one sphere of its cognition, is called upon to consider questions, which it cannot decline, as they are presented by its own nature, but which it cannot answer, as they transcend every faculty of the mind.

I’ve read this book. I’ve found value in this book. And yet, sheesh, what’s with the style? I mean how about just putting it like this:

Being human brings up inevitable and unanswerable questions.

And that’s just off the top of my head! You might say that any book published in the late eighteenth century is going to have some troublesome language, to which I say:

My father had a small estate in Nottinghamshire; I was the third of five sons.

This is the opener of the first chapter of a book published fifty years earlier: Gulliver’s Travels, a book full of punchy, vivid philosophical points. Jonathan Swift will make you ask questions. With Immanuel Kant, the question is first going to be “What are you talking about?” And when I say, “What are you talking about?” I don’t mean “What is the subject matter preoccupying Immanuel Kant in his immense, classic work?” I mean it the way anyone asks that question. Like if I said, “World War I was caused by pies,” you’d say, “What are you talking about?”

Here’s what Bertrand Russell has to say about World War I:

Another way in which good men can be useful is by getting themselves murdered… The Archduke who was murdered at Sarajevo was, I believe, a good man; and how grateful we ought to be to him! If he had not died as he did, we might not have had the war, and then the world would not have been made safe for democracy, nor would militarism have been overthrown, nor should we be now enjoying military despotisms in Spain, Italy, Hungary, Bulgaria and Russia.

I like this. He starts with a joke, or, anyway, a deadpan, ironic premise, and then leads us through specific examples until we’re challenging the very notion of “good,” which is his point in the first place. The prose is clean, clear, and sharp, and so is Russell’s reputation as a keen-witted philosopher who leads us not only through the muddle of philosophy but the muddle of philosophers. Indeed, his most famous book is The History of Western Philosophy, which has saved many a philosophy student from reading philosophers by instead reading what this philosopher thinks of them. Having fished a little through Russell’s History some years ago, I chose a less imposing volume, his Sceptical Essays.

I like skepticism; at least, I think I do. Given Russell’s rep, I expected Sceptical Essays to have a pointed and readable style, which it does. Being the slick debater he must have been, Russell lines up a few harmless statements and then shatters them, all in the same deadpan tone we see above. I wish, then, that even as I always knew what he was talking about, I knew what he was talking about. See here:

A considerable part of current morals is still of this sort: certain kinds of conduct produce emotions of horror, quite regardless of the question whether they have bad effects or not.

So far so good; when many moral philosophers work solely with cold reason, I like this being anchored in “emotions of horror,” which seems sound. But then he goes on with this:

Murder, for example, can obviously not be tolerated in a civilized society; yet the origin of the prohibition of murder is purely superstitious. It was thought that the murdered man’s blood (or, later, his ghost) demanded vengeance, and might punish not only the guilty man, but any one who showed him kindness.

This seems bogus. I’m no anthropologist, but I’d guess that long ago, as now, people mourned people who were killed, which led to laws against it—that is, murder’s prohibition is rooted in that “emotion of horror,” not in a ghost story somebody dug up. Russell cites J. G. Frazer, who was an anthropologist, as the guy who did the digging, but to take the word of old mythology at face value—that is, that such beliefs were held, even back then, with a superstition independent of horror rather than entwined with it—seems the very opposite of skepticism. It’s the same when Russell talks about socialism:

It is often said that socialism is contrary to human nature, and this assertion is denied by socialists with the same heat with which it is made by their opponents. The late Dr. Rivers… sets forth certain anthropological data which show that socialism is not contrary to human nature in Melanesia; it then points out that we do not know whether human nature is the same in Melanesia as in Europe; and it concludes that the only way of finding out whether socialism is contrary to European human nature is to try it.

What possible definition of skepticism allows for the acceptance of “data which show that socialism is not contrary to human nature in Melanesia,” particularly if we admit we don’t know whether human nature is the same from place to place? What would that data even look like? Melanesians smiling while reading Das Kapital? Here’s Russell on marriage:

The bulk of the population of every country is persuaded that all marriage customs other than its own are immoral, and that those who combat this view only do so in order to justify their own loose lives… Yet no one in any of the various countries makes the slightest attempt to show that the custom of his own country contributes more to human happiness than the customs of others.

At a time when the gay marriage debate is still flaring in my own country, I found this absurd. Opponents of gay marriage do little else but proclaim that society’s happiness and well-being depend on exclusively heterosexual unions. I can’t fault Russell for failing to predict the gay-marriage debate in a book published more than eighty years ago, but the fact that his essay, snappy as it was, was having me defend the silly arguments of homophobes made me look askance at all of his points. I couldn’t help but think that his clear prose, set out with specific examples rather than plodding vagueness, had sacrificed genuine sense in favor of being fun to read, which made me wonder if the philosophers who were more difficult to read were in fact just making better arguments by ignoring the lures of readable style in favor of an abstract, and thus more accurate, reach. In other words, I’d become skeptical of skepticism, and damned if I can tell if that means the book is a powerful one or a ridiculous one. What is he talking about, really?

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