peteg's blog - noise - books - 2008 12 21 Monk BertrandRussell

Ray Monk: Bertrand Russell: The Spirit of Solitude

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I bought this book many years ago, thinking it was a complete biography of Bertrand Russell's life, and possibly a good one too. Now I am simply glad to have finished it, and will not be reading the second volume.

In essence the books sets out Russell's private life in a lot of detail, and hence with a lot of repetition. My hope that Monk would do a decent job at sketching Russell's philosophical program and prosecution of it was stymied. This was especially suprising after reading Monk's Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius so many years ago. Wittgenstein's Poker this is not.

Moreover the historical framing is repetitive and shallow; it would've helped to expand on how distant an aristocrat such as Russell was from the working class in the late Victorian age, as it would have provided a useful context for evaluating his political views, as well as furnished some idea of what possibilities and constraints his life held.

On the positive side, Monk does explore the contradictions in Russell's thinking, theory and practice, such as setting his crusade to put philosophy on a scientific basis (as Kant argued for, albeit for a different agenda) against his relatively naive approach to political philosophy. Russell did, however, interpret his experiences in what would later be the historically correct way; his writings on the soullessness of Russia after the Bolshevik revolution were an excellent contemporary account.

Ultimately even this single volume is over-long. Most frustrating is that his relationship with Wittgenstein is so shallowly treated. While it is not entirely a hatchet job, clearly Monk found the task onerous; the best quote I could find is from one of Wittgenstein's letters (p574 in my hardcover) apropos Russell's introduction to the Tractatus:

There's so much of it that I'm not quite in agreement with — both where you're critical of me and also where you're simply trying to elucidate my point of view. But that doesn't matter. The future will pass judgement on us — or perhaps it won't, and if it is silent that will be a judgement too.

This book sorely disappoints as a philosophical biography of one of the founders of modern philosophical logic. Time for something more lively.