PhD Fellowship in Philosophy

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What Can Be Learned from Bertrand Russell’s Life as a Philanderer? Part IV

Bertrand Russell may have learned at the end of his life something that may have given him more peace and identity had he learned it earlier. His seeming inability to maintain a solid, loving relationship with a single woman was a symptom of a much more significant issue. By looking at his life, we possibly can save our own.

IV. We Are What We Love

Now to answer the questions of how this relates to Russell within academia, and what can be learned from his resolutions. While the demons Russell spent much of his life wrestling are made most perspicuous by his romantic life, they were present, too, in his scholarship. Through the course of his career he wrote on every major area of academic philosophy (with the exception of aesthetics[1]), concentrating mostly on metaphysics, logic, mathematics and epistemology. He dabbled in more-or-less very sphere available to him, never quite settling enough to merit the branding of a specialist. Beyond philosophy he was yet more fickle, alighting every subject from politics to literature, all with a firm aversion to truly committing himself to any one of them. It would seem that, despite the significant contribution he made to the twentieth century, Russell was unable still to place himself within the world of academia. He often described his lifelong ‘search for knowledge,’[2] the search for a domain that could sustain him—a quest which went, for the most part, unsatisfied. Whether Russell’s inability to discover his true raison d'être came at the expense of his work is neither here nor there; what should be taken from this is that he lived his life in torment and self-discontent, desperate for a place to belong, as a result of his own personal philosophy. Though he eventually found happiness in some areas of his life, he may well have had more success—and indeed more happiness—had he instead revised the way he looked at things.

Can it be said that we should not look for identity in the things we do? Would Russell have been happier had he adopted the attitude of his eighty-year-old self from the very beginning, free of all neuroses and expectations of self-discovery? I would support such an idea. Those who search for themselves within something else—whether that be a lover or a scholastic interest—are forever bound to disappointment, for in the search’s necessity alone they are lost. A nameless proverb has circulated the Western world for a long time: WE ARE WHAT WE DO. Is this fair? Is this even true? Is the waitress a waitress and nothing more? Am I, for writing this very article, a philosopher and a philosopher alone? Am I to be classified in this way, as accords my choice in degree? This idea I would not support; and I believe it was this way of thinking that compelled Russell, and so many others, to spend their lives in pursuit of something that was never missing. In the preface of his Autobiography Russell described how his life was governed by three passions: his longing for love, his search for knowledge, and his unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind.[3] Could there be a more noble set of passions in governance of a man’s life? Indeed it would seem not, but Russell’s avid determination to fit perfectly into these moulds rendered him bitterly unhappy for eight decades. He sought to see himself cemented in these goals, sublimely coalesced, as to avoid feeling unworthy of them. This, I believe, was unwise of him. We seek to find ourselves in what we do, as a means of finding somewhere to belong, and I believe this to be tragically misguided. I would proffer an alternative proverb, one which instead insists that WE ARE WHAT WE LOVE. I am a philosopher, yes, but if I were to tirelessly scour the discipline in search of myself I would die an unhappy man. Instead I would characterise myself as one who loves philosophy, one who is passionate about philosophy, and one whose identity may be comfortably characterised by my feelings towards philosophy. Here we leave no question of my identity, an identity which is in no way contingent on an infinite procession of qualifications, such as those Russell set himself. Had this been the way in which Russell approached his life from the very beginning, in the way of his marriage to Edith, I believe he could have enjoyed great happiness in concurrence with phenomenal success. He was a wonderful man, a marvel of brilliance, and ought to be remembered for his love of what he did, and not the things he was all too human to achieve.

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[1] Ibid. 84.

[2] Thomas, M.. (2011). Bertrand Russell Autobiography - Poem With Distinction. Available: http://allpoetry.com/contest/2570623-Bertrand-Russell-Autobiography---Poem-With-. Last accessed 01/02/14.

[3] Russell, B. (2009). Autobiography. London: Routledge. Preface.

What Can Be Learned from Bertrand Russell’s Life as a Philanderer? Part III

III­. A Frantic Quest for Identity?

There is a severe deficit of literature describing Russell’s third marriage to the young Patricia Spence, who was twenty-two to Russell’s sixty-four years when they tied the knot in 1936. She was an ‘attractive’ Oxford undergraduate with whom Russell fathered his second son, Conrad, who later became a prominent historian.[1] Patricia, too, must have been something of a scholar, cited as a major contributor to Russell’s History of Western Philosophy, among his most popular publications. Given her age and lack of experience, Russell’s third wife must have contrasted Dora in just about every way; and this could well be considered his motivation for pursuing the relationship. Their bond spanned thirteen years, ending cacophonously in 1949. The subsequent rift between lovers foiled Russell’s relationship with Conrad, who did not again see his father until the winter of 1968, a meeting which, for both of them, caused a permanent breach with Patricia.[2] Though small affairs surely thrived amid Russell’s third and fourth marriages, his flight from Patricia began the summation of his career as a womaniser, which, at eighty years, might warrant remark in itself.

Russell’s third and final divorce was finalised in 1952, almost six decades after his first marriage in 1894. Oddly enough it was by the remains of his relationship with Alys that Russell happened upon his fourth marriage, the only one he appeared loathe to abandon, discounting the great departure of death. Russell first met Edith Finch in the early 1930s: they shared a mutual friendship with a woman named Lucy Donnelly, an acclaimed teacher of English whose countenance he had met by Alys’s introduction. Edith and Lucy had been very close, having taught together at Bryn Mawr College following Edith’s graduation from the University of Oxford. They lived in a house they themselves had built in Rosemont, Pennsylvania, to which Russell paid regular visits until Lucy’s death in 1948.[3] An operose and well-qualified woman, Edith continued to work as a New York editor well into her old age, having already published two biographies and a pensive philosophical work entitled Strange Humanity.[4] Russell encountered Edith again in 1950, having flown to New York to deliver the Matchette Foundation lectures. Their relationship developed quickly and they married two years later. Whether poised by the temperance of age or the result of ‘true love,’ their marriage was to bring ‘great happiness’[5] to both, and failed to imitate Russell’s previous relationships. They worked together, campaigned together, and lived together in what seemed to be absolute harmony. Russell’s later years strayed far from the halcyon days of the classic retirement, and with time he was met with more and more adversity; but handlocked with Edith he seemed no longer to heed the frantic capers of the lost child within him, a tendency which would—had it been present—surely seen her cast to the wind. The pair can be seen today immortalised in black and white, standing side-by-side at political demonstrations and cocktail parties alike, captured by the ironically youthful serenity of old age. Redeemed from the self-addled rancour of his youth, Russell was free to enjoy himself—neither in Edith’s shadow nor his own—in a way he had not previously allowed. Gone seemed to be Russell’s fanatic thirst for discovery: his letters with Edith discussed the weather, books read and unread, travel plans, and even groceries—mundane topics of everyday life imbued with a love for which he had spent many decades searching. They moved to Penrhyndeudraeth, north Wales, where they lived their final years together, saluting current affairs where necessary, but mostly overlooking the great wild fells of the British countryside.

What could have caused such a drastic change in Russell’s temperament? His sudden resignation to complacency was a vicissitude for which there appeared no prior warning. The sceptic would likely put his change in attitude to a result of old age: he no longer had the time or energy to pursue his capricious desires, and in that scarcity huddled into a comfortable marriage sufficient enough to die in. Could this be true? Could what seemed a happy ending have been nothing but the forfeit of an old man? Inference from the evidence would suggest otherwise. Though incessantly lost within them, Russell was certainly one to express his emotions, with no qualms in allowing his feelings to manifest at the expense of himself or others. Suffering quietly was therefore something he was unlikely to perform very well, let alone as a consequence of old age: the amounting years did little to temper his personality throughout his youth; why would they suddenly gain sway in his elderly years?

No—it would seem, given the observations made above, that something changed in the way Russell viewed himself from within his relationships. His and Edith’s marriage was functional and healthy in its deficiency of whatever infiltrated his previous experiences with women. Could this malignant catalyst have been his frantic quest for identity? It would certainly make sense: with each succeeding relationship Russell assumed a new identity, carrying with him new values and ambitions. He entered his first marriage with hopes of becoming the seemly Christian husband, both proper and suitable given its occurrence in the late nineteenth century. Once these efforts miscarried and culminated in divorce he fell into the hands of Lady Ottoline, who impregnated him with the desire to become a tortured artist. In this he failed, moving into his second marriage, which saw his already progressive views challenged by Dora, whose heavily liberal attitude forced him to become more progressive than ever before. Unable to keep up with her, Russell divorced Dora in favour of a woman whose youth and compliance conferred him the most prosaic of identities, the classic husband, wealthy and venerable. This, too, failed to make Russell happy, and true to his expressionist ways he left Patricia—an act which, considering his age at the time, plays testament to his unwavering commitment to the pursuit of happiness.

Could it be said that Russell and Edith’s marriage was not corrupted in this way? It would be overly romantic to suggest their relationship went unblemished by Russell’s tendency to seek essence in his relationships; but it is clear that any remnants of such failed to derail them. Together they endured intense hardship—including the mental decline of both Russell’s son and his granddaughters—with no evidence of a broken link between them. He seemed not obliged to reinvent himself for her, perhaps due to an inner sense of self he had before lacked. There was no self-estrangement, no bitterness, no competition: Russell simply fell in love with Edith, plain and simple, with no intent to alter or further himself in any way. Had this been the answer to Russell’s problems? It would seem so; the ensuing marriage seemed all but perfect. His Autobiography, a compendium of his entire life’s experience, was lovingly dedicated to her, to Edith, a woman for whom he had spent eighty years searching:

Through the long years
I sought peace
I found ecstasy, I found anguish,
I found madness,
I found loneliness,
I found the solitary pain
that gnaws the heart,
But peace I did not find.

Now, old & near my end,
I have known you,
And, knowing you,
I have found both ecstasy & peace
I know rest
After so many lonely years.
I know what life & love may be.
Now, if I sleep
I shall sleep fulfilled.[6]

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[1] Barrette, P.. (1997). The Bertrand Russell Gallery, Family. Available: www.humanities.mcmaster.ca/~bertrand/family.html. Last accessed 31/01/14.

[2] Monk, R. (2001). Bertrand Russell: 1921-1970, The Ghost of Madness. New York: Free Press. 306.

[3] Turcon, S.. (1992). The Edith Russell Papers. In: russell: the Journal of the Bertrand Russell Archives. Hamilton, Ont.: McMaster University Library Press. 61-2.

[4] Ibid. 63.

[5] Ibid. 62.

[6] Russell, B. (2009). Autobiography. London: Routledge. Ded.

Question about Philosophers - Stephen Maitzen responds

Hi. My question regards Martin Heidegger and his work and philosophical project. To whom would you recommend reading Heidegger's texts? To whom would you recommend his philosophy? I was once
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Hi. My question regards Martin Heidegger and his work and philosophical project. To whom would you recommend reading Heidegger's texts? To whom would you recommend his philosophy? I was once told by a philosophy professor of mine that he was "The greatest thinker of the last century" and, consequently, when faced with one of his texts, I expected something grand. Yet, 'grand' is not exactly the word I'd use to describe my experience with it. Since then, I have read some other stuff by him and I can say that my opinion about his work has not really changed from that of the first time I encountered: a rather obfuscated writer with many pretensions; not a true thinker. On the other hand, the fact of seeing some personalities praising his work, without actually elaborating on their claims, makes the case rather shady. Is Heidegger being praised for his actual efforts as a thinker? Or is it all the buzz a mere tool to promote a certain view of things which, otherwise, would not. . .

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The Daily Owl 3-18-2014

Useful fictions are only useful if we don't know they're fictions.

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"Useful fictions are only useful if we don't know they're fictions."

Little bits of wisdom from a small, pewter Otus
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The otherworldly Malamud

Bernard Malamud’s protagonists are forever feeling held back, locked out, stifled – not unlike Malamud himself…
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Bernard Malamud’s protagonists are forever feeling held back, locked out, stifled – not unlike Malamud himself… more»

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Shanghai Media Group – 29 TV channels, 11 radio stations, 10 newspapers and magazines, 10,000 employees – is how China spins a story of itself to itself…
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Shanghai Media Group – 29 TV channels, 11 radio stations, 10 newspapers and magazines, 10,000 employees – is how China spins a story of itself to itself… more»

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Inside Hamlet’s head

Hamlet, that dithering Dane, is incapable of making up his mind. But what’s at the root of his predicament: doubt or the burden of too much knowledge?
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Hamlet, that dithering Dane, is incapable of making up his mind. But what’s at the root of his predicament: doubt or the burden of too much knowledge? more»

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Plato's Republic: A Dialogue in 16 Chapters

2014.03.16 : View this Review Online | View Recent NDPR Reviews Alain Badiou, Plato's Republic: A Dialogue in 16 Chapters, Susan Spitzer (tr.), Columbia University Press, 2012, xxxvi +
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2014.03.16 : View this Review Online | View Recent NDPR Reviews Alain Badiou, Plato's Republic: A Dialogue in 16 Chapters, Susan Spitzer (tr.), Columbia University Press, 2012, xxxvi + 372pp., $35.00 (hbk), ISBN 9780231160162. Reviewed by Sol Goldberg, University of Toronto Plato's "cave allegory" is among the best-known passages in the entire history of philosophy, perhaps even in the entire history of literature. This brief narrative not only remains a fixture in introductions to the discipline for its account of the philosophical enterprise and its challenges, but has also become part of the fabric of popular culture where it serves as a convenient and dramatic image of the pursuit of truth and freedom. There are renderings on YouTube in addition to several big-screen adaptations like The Matrix and The Truman Show. Its current popularity and familiarity can make it quite difficult for us, however, even to consider, let alone to. . .

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Recent Work on Motivational Internalism

Imagine a person who is not at all motivated to help others. I don't just mean a person who doesn't care about others as much as she should; I mean a person who is literally not motivated at all,
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Imagine a person who is not at all motivated to help others. I don't just mean a person who doesn't care about others as much as she should; I mean a person who is literally not motivated at all, not even to the tiniest degree. Now comes the question: Could such a person genuinely believe that she is morally obligated to help other people? This question lies at the heart of a complex philosophical debate. Motivational externalists (in one sense of the term) argue that it is possible for an agent to hold a moral belief in the absence of any corresponding motivation. It could be that the agent genuinely believes she has this moral obligation but simply doesn't care at all about what she is morally obligated to do. By contrast, motivational internalists argue that such a belief would be impossible. On this latter view, it is necessarily the case that if an agent believes she is morally obligated to do something, she is at least somewhat motivated to do it. Although work in this area. . .

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