Bertrand’s Ghost

I’ll admit it.  Bertrand Russell’s Autobiography is one of my favorite books.  He was a hero of mine back in my youth, but even now, when I have no heroes, that book still enchants me.

Let us take one of Russell’s finest achievements.  Along with Whitehead, he showed in their Principia Mathematica how to deduce mathematics from axioms of logic.  The chapter in his Autobiography where he discusses that fascinates me still.

Because of Russell I was much under the sway of logicism when I was young, not only as a philosophy of mathematics, but as a philosophy of life, extending Russell’s thought to realms he never dreamed of and would have abhorred.  Now that I am older and know the meaning of life, at least for we humans, lies in metaphor, I stand corrected–even in my philosophy of mathematics.  (Big Wink)

Yet it was Russell who put me on the path to the study of mathematical logic, a path I do not regret, for at one time I mastered Godel’s On Formally Undecidable Propositions of Principia Mathematica and Related Systems on my own.  It remains one of my proudest achievements.

In 1950, Bertrand received the Nobel Prize for Literature.  I thought it odd for most of my life, but now it seems so right especially after his Autobiography, which was written in the mid-Sixties.  Even his Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy is a minor literary classic.  (He wrote it while in jail during World War I for opposing the war.)  Saying that makes me think he is my hero again, and I don’t hold much truck with heroes except for folks like him and U. S. Grant and such.

I own the hardback volumes and a paperback copy of Autobiography.  (Another Big Wink)

Published in: on November 30, 2009 at 1:25 pm  Comments (3)  

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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. “He was a hero of mine back in my youth, but even now, when I have no heroes, that book still enchants me.

    That’s a great line. I admire people like you who “get” the aesthetics of mathematics (or even “master” Godel).

    For me, Bertrand Russell’s greatest “achievement” was his patronage and tolerance of Wittgenstein, however ambiguous and wrenching it was for him.

    Bertrand Russell has always corresponded to my prejudice about the English aristocrat: professionally brilliant and suave, privately brutal and neurotic.

  2. Orla,

    That might not be a prejudice.

    I’ve always thought one of the great moments in philosophy was Russell writing the introduction to the Tractatus and Wittgenstein saying Russell didn’t get the jist of the book.

  3. I’m not into mathematics, but I am into history. Russell in his autobiography gives us insight into a group of people who changed the world in ways they did not expect and failed to change the world in the way they wanted.

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