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What made Russell feel ready for suicide?

In early May 1913 Bertrand Russell sat down to write a book on the theory of knowledge, his first major philosophical work after Principia Mathematica. He set a brisk pace for himself – ten pages a day at first, up to twelve by mid-May. He was “bursting with work” and “felt happy as king”. By early June he had 350 pages. 350 pages in one month!

He never finished the manuscript. Some parts of it were published as journal articles, but the book itself was never completed. (It was later published posthumously under the title Theory of Knowledge.) What went wrong?

In a word: Wittgenstein. Russell details his troubles in a series of extraordinary letters to Ottoline Morrell.

“Wittgenstein came to see me – we were both cross from the heat – I showed him a crucial part of what I have been writing. He said it was all wrong, not realizing the difficulties – that he had tried my view and knew it wouldn’t work. I couldn’t understand his objection – in fact he was very inarticulate – but I feel in my bones that he must be right, and that he has seen something that I have missed. If I could see it too I shouldn’t mind, but as it is, it is worrying, and has rather destroyed the pleasure in my writing.” (Russell’s letter to Ottoline Morrell, 27 May 1913)

His depression persisted through June:

“All that has gone wrong with me lately comes from Wittgenstein’s attack on my work – I have only just realized this. It was very difficult to be honest about it, as it makes a large part of the book I meant to write impossible for years to come probably … I must be much sunk – it is the first time that I have failed in honesty over work. I have been creeping back towards a better frame of mind all these weeks, but have only really achieved it today. Only yesterday I felt ready for suicide…” (Russell’s letter to Ottoline Morrell, 19 June 1913)

Looking back on this incident he wrote:

“Do you remember that at the time when you were seeing Vittoz I wrote a lot of stuff about Theory of Knowledge, which Wittgenstein criticized with the greatest severity? His criticism, tho’ I don’t think you realised it at the time, was an event of first-rate importance in my life, and affected everything I have done since. I saw he was right, and I saw that I could not hope ever again to do fundamental work in philosophy. My impulse was shattered, like a wave dashed to pieces against a breakwater.” (Russell’s letter to Ottoline Morrell, 4 March 1916)

Note the date on this last letter – three years after Wittgenstein’s initial criticism. Russell had a penchant for overstatement, but this was no heat-of-the-moment reaction. Whatever they talked about in late May 1913 had a powerful and lasting effect on Russell.

Othello by Christian Köhler (1809-1861) (Koller Auktionen). Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Wittgenstein’s criticism was directed at the philosophical core of Russell’s Theory of Knowledge manuscript, the so-called Multiple Relation Theory of Judgment. According to the Multiple Relation Theory, judgment is not a two-place relation between a person and a proposition, but rather a many-place relation between a person and what would have been the constituents of a proposition. For example, when Othello judges that Desdemona loves Cassio he doesn’t bear a two-place relation to the proposition that Desdemona loves Cassio, but rather a four-place relation to Desdemona, love, and Cassio. This theory allowed Russell to do away with propositions and thus avoid a set of problems about propositions, collectively known as the problem of the unity of the proposition, which had been plaguing him for the better part of a decade.

Wittgenstein states his criticism in a number of places, all characteristically telegraphic and obscure. First, there is a letter to Russell from June 1913:

“I can now express my objection to your theory of judgment exactly: I believe it is obvious that, from the proposition ‘A judges that (say) a is in a relation R to b’, if correctly analysed, the proposition ‘aRb.Ú.~aRb’ must follow directly without the use of any other premiss. This condition is not fulfilled by your theory.” (Wittgenstein’s letter to Russell, June 1913)

Then “Notes on Logic” from September 1913:

“Every right theory of judgment must make it impossible for me to judge that ‘this table penholders the book’.”

Russell’s theory does not satisfy this requirement.

And finally the Tractatus:

“5.5422 The correct explanation of the form of the proposition, ‘A makes the judgement p’, must show that it is impossible for a judgement to be a piece of nonsense. (Russell’s theory does not satisfy this requirement.)”

What problem is Wittgenstein raising here? And why did it have such an overwhelming effect on Russell?

These have become some of the most intensely debated questions in the history of early analytic philosophy. For a time, the consensus was that Wittgenstein had uncovered an unresolvable tension between the Multiple Relation Theory and the theory of types in Principia Mathematica. But that consensus has recently been shattered and now different interpretations of Wittgenstein’s criticism are proliferating. Here’s what’s certain: the criticism has something to do with ruling out judgments of “nonsense”, and it was absolutely devastating for Russell. Beyond that, there’s very little agreement about what Wittgenstein was getting at. I have my own ideas about the answers to these questions, but my aim here is to pose a problem, not to solve it.

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