Russell … Really?

Brian Leiter is running a poll on who the greatest philosopher of the 20th Century was. It’s an amusing exercise, and somewhat informative, at least insofar as it tells us something about Leiter’s readership, and hence about the profession.

Early in the voting, the leaders were Wittgenstein, Lewis and Russell (in that order), with a second group consisting of Rawls, Heidegger and Quine (in that order).

There are a few surprises. The two big heroes of Scott Soames’s history volumes, Moore and Kripke, are getting a surprisingly small amount of love. But what really throws me in these polls is the level of support for Russell. I’m always struck at the disconnect between how little Russell is cited these days compared to his famous contemporaries, such as Frege, Moore or Wittgenstein.

Now it’s clearly true that Russell’s theory of descriptions is of monumental importance to philosophy. I don’t think it alone is enough to make Russell the greatest philosopher of the 20th Century. I used to argue, for fun, that Grice was the greatest philosopher of the 20th century because his theory of implicature was the greatest advance in 20th century philosophy. I think the premise of that argument is plausible, but it’s a terrible argument – great philosophers have more great works.

And once we go past the theory of descriptions, I don’t think there is a huge amount to back up Russell’s case. Logical atomism is interesting, and in light of the revival of truthmaker theory, important. But I don’t think Russell really gets to the heart of the matter, and in any case I was under the (possibly false) impression that Russell’s contributions here were greatly influenced by Wittgenstein’s pre-Tractarian writings.

I don’t think Russell’s work on sense data, or phenomenalism, are going to weigh heavily on the credit side of the ledger.

Principia Mathematica was a great project, but it does seem to have ended in failure. (Although thinking about how it failed gives one reason to think that Leiter should have included Godel as an option on his list of great philosophers.)

I think Russell’s later epistemology is interesting to work through, but the best parts are somewhat warmed over versions of what Keynes said in his Treatise on Probability.

I don’t think much of the multiple relations theory of judgment, though maybe some do. And I don’t think the ethics and political philosophy is really of much philosophical significance.

Russell’s idea that acquaintance was important to de re thought was obviously a very good idea, and an important one, though he didn’t develop it in particularly compelling ways. (See the earlier discussion of phenomenalism.)

What’s left, it seems to me, is that Russell was very influential in a number of ways. His books about contemporary philosophy (such as Problems of Philosophy) and history of philosophy were great popularisers. (Although you want to be careful with the history.) Russell was obviously important in bringing the work of Frege and Wittgenstein to the attention of English-speaking philosophers, the way that Ayer was important in bringing the work of German-speaking philosophers into the English-speaking world a generation later. And Russell was incredibly important, in the way that a very good Chair, or Dean, is important, in nurturing the careers of some of these people, such as Wittgenstein. But I don’t think that adds up to best-of-century level philosophical greatness.

One other thing is left I suspect. Russell is in many ways the first recognisably contemporary philosopher. His concerns are not always our concerns, but it is easy to see a family resemblance. Much of the way we do philosophy is similar to the way Russell did philosophy; and perhaps it is that way because Russell did it that way. If we read pre-Russellian philosophers, or at least if I read pre-Russellian philosophers, they are distant in a way that Russell, and most people who come after him, are not.

But there’s one other philosopher I can say that about too, namely Moore. And it’s interesting to think why Russell gets so much more love in polls like this than Moore. I didn’t vote for Moore; I voted for Lewis. But I’m interested especially in why so many people rank Russell above Moore.

Like Russell, Moore has a flagship contribution: his work in meta-ethics. Whatever one thinks of the conclusions (and I’m hostile to just about all of them), the development of the open question argument, the naturalistic fallacy, intuitionism as a methodology, and non-naturalism in ethics all seem like a very big deal. And all of them, like Russell’s theory of descriptions, remain important to the present day.

But Moore’s other work has had more lasting importance, I think. Moore’s paradox remains a lively topic, informing debates about language and epistemology to the present day. Moorean responses to scepticism remain a central thread in contemporary epistemology, and, I think, with good reason. Moore’s work on analysis has been useful through the history of debates about analysis, and so on.

None of this makes Moore the best philosopher of the 20th century. None of it adds up, I think, to Lewis’s contributions to language, mind, metaphysics, decision theory, etc. And that’s before we start comparing Moore to Quine, Kripke, Wittgenstein, Davidson, Carnap, Grice, Stalnaker, Fodor, Williamson and so on. But it all adds to my puzzlement as to what it is I’m missing about Russell, who has long struck me as a philosopher who was highly influential, and deservedly so, without having as many of the striking original contributions as I think the really great philosophers have.

24 Replies to “Russell … Really?”

  1. Brian,

    Some people might be attracted to Russell’s political work, and the enormous personal costs he suffered for having the courage of his convictions. These people might think that philosophical greatness manifests itself in ways other than original and lasting contributions to the professional literature.

    I’m curious: what interesting parts of Russell’s later epistemology (_Human Knowledge_?) are just Keynes warmed over?

  2. I was mostly thinking Human Knowledge. There’s a major thread running through that book that we can’t have pure empiricism, because empirical evidence alone can’t tell us whether what that very empirical evidence supports. That seemed largely warmed over Keynes to me. (Though Keynes is fantastic – and going back over his work is very very useful.)

    Of course, I now don’t think that line in Human Knowledge is right. One of the points of my “The Bayesian and the Dogmatist” is that the thorough-going empiricism that Russell despairs of might actually be coherent after all. But I don’t hold that against Russell – I think there’s a lot to learn from Human Knowledge at least.

  3. Yeah, I think Russell is arguably (probably, even) the most influential figure of 20th century analytic philosophy. And, he was also a pretty good philosopher. I think the combination (not to mention the nobel prize(s), etc.) might warrant the honorific “best”. Here’s a nice, detailed summary of the evolution of his philosophical thought:

    It’s difficult to assess, really, since Russell wrote so much stuff and had such a powerful influence on the way philosophy was done. In 50 years, will we say The Beatles were “the best” rock group of the past 100 years?

  4. I voted for Carnap, in part because I expected Russell to win, but on reflection I think Russell might be a nose ahead. Russell is consistently brilliant and original even when he’s not influential. For example, most people think of Russell primarily as a contributor to the philosophy of logic, language, and mathematics, with some medium-good metaphysics and epistemology and some bad political philosophy along the way. He’s rarely thought of as a philosopher of mind, but along the way he made at least three contributions to the philosophy of mind with extraordinary influence: the canonical formulation of the sense-datum theory, the canonical analysis of propositional attitudes, and a treatment of the mind-body problem (in The Analysis of Matter) that in recent years has become recognized as one of the most important views on the subject. In addition to these influential works, if one reads such works as the Theory of Knowledge and the Analysis of Mind, one finds a casual brilliance in his largely-ignored treatment of topics such as attention, belief, memory, temporal consciousness, and much else. Of course Lewis is also a great philosopher, and if one set Lewis’s works alongside Russell’s without regard for chronology one might find reason to prefer Lewis. But given the 50+ years between the two (and given the unmatched greatness of Principia Mathematica), I find Russell to be more extraordinarily ahead of his time.

  5. Maybe Russell was great in a similar way that Darwin was. Most of the ideas Darwin had can be found dotted around in other people’s works, but he brought them all together in a systematic and compelling way and filtered out much that was worthless in their presentation of those ideas. I’m not saying that this is what Russell did (if Brian’s right, perhaps Russell actually presented others’ ideas is a less compelling way). But there’s something to be said for the fact that Russell seems to us to be the first philosopher who discusses a whole bunch of the problems we care about in a way that we recognize. And he did so whilst trying to construct a coherent system. He should get recognition for that. And I suspect that greatness is usually asked in some such historical sense. We don’t normally assess it ahistorically. Lewis and perhaps Quine were better system builders. But they were both writing within a framework that already included Russell (and others of course). If Brian’s right about the distance we find when looking at pre-Russell writers, that makes his achievement all the more impressive. So even if Chalmers is wrong about the value of the work he mentions, his simply having worked on those topics warrants the award.

  6. The last sentence should be “… his simply having worked on those topics, in the way that he did, warrants the award.”

  7. “Russell is in many ways the first recognisably contemporary philosopher. His concerns are not always our concerns, but it is easy to see a family resemblance. Much of the way we do philosophy is similar to the way Russell did philosophy; and perhaps it is that way because Russell did it that way. If we read pre-Russellian philosophers, or at least if I read pre-Russellian philosophers, they are distant in a way that Russell, and most people who come after him, are not.”

    Interesting. One possible counter-example would be Sidgwick in the Methods of Ethics. That feels like reading a contemporary, modulo some of the prose style (but then the same adjustment must be applied to Russell, too).

  8. I second Tad Brennan on Sidgwick’s The Methods of Ethics (1st ed., 1874) and the same is true of other late 19th-century moral philosophers influenced by Sidgwick, e.g. Hastings Rashdall.

    The fact is that moral philosophy was being written in a recognizably ‘analytic’ style well before M & E, though the standard histories won’t tell you that.

  9. russell still strikes me as an extremely relevant figure in the foundations of math. it seems certainly right that principia failed, but, in writing it, russell articulated so many problems and views that still shape the area.

    he discovered russell’s paradox (and others). he gave us the first clear statement of various ways of responding to it (limitation of size, zigzag theory, etc.). he was a pioneer of predicativism. he was (to my knowledge) the first to clearly articulate the view that axioms in mathematics are justified in a way that is broadly analogous to the way in which fundamental principles of empirical science are justified — a vew that godel is famous for endorsing. all of these contributions remain central to discussions in the foundations of math.

  10. Having just co-taught the MOE, I’ll pile on the Sidgwick bandwagon.

    One thing I would also ask though — are there respects in which Russell’s concerns or ways of doing philosophy resemble our concerns or ways that are not also respects in which, e.g., Brentano, Meinong, or Husserl of the Logical Investigations don’t? It doesn’t seem to me that there are. If I’m right, isn’t it a little weird to say that Russell’s greatness consists in the fact he is largely responsible for getting us to have the concerns/methods we have, rather than, e.g., Brentano? That seems like a weird reason to call someone a great philosopher.

    (I think Russell is pretty great though. But I also voted for Lewis.)

  11. eh, there’s a weird double negative in the earlier comment… sorry. should be clear what i meant.

  12. I think the case for Russell would go something like this.

    First, the theory of descriptions was a huge advance — some would say ‘On Denoting’ was the greatest piece of philosophical analysis of the 20th century. Not because it was flawless, but (i) because it at once introduced all sorts of ideas that we still debate (descriptions as quantifier expressions, descriptive theory of names, descriptions as senses, quantifier scope in intensional environments, a rejection of Meinongianism, and on and on. There are so many ideas in it, it’s like the paper came from mars. But (ii) the paper also helped usher in a whole new style of doing philosophical analysis (at least in M&E). Certainly more so than Moore’s work did.

    Second, Russell and Moore were both monumentally huge in turning British philosophy around and away from British idealism and from Meinongianism. That represents a change in direction that we certainly don’t see in Lewis, for example.

    Third, even before ‘On Denoting’ Russell gave us singular propositions. Do we forget that Russellian propositions are still the rage in some quarters?

    Fourth, Russell’s paradox totally derailed Frege’s grand project. How many other philosophers can say they came up with an objection to Frege’s formal system that Frege hadn’t seen? (Much less subsequently left Frege in despair).

    Fifth, Russell’s own solution to the paradoxes — the theory of types was a monumental achievement.

    Sixth, I once saw Princippia Mathematica described as an intellectual pyramid of the 20th Century. Did the project fail? Well, formalism failed thanks to Godel, but Russell’s logicism is another matter. Not many 20th century philosophers could have executed a project like that, certainly even fewer if they were handed the resources available to Russell at the time.

    7th, the knowledge by description and knowledge by acquaintance thing is still huge — consider Evans work on singular and general thoughts.

    8th, I don’t consider it insignificant at all that Russell brought Wittgenstein and Frege to our attention. Dean’s don’t do things like that. They don’t recognize talent in the raw or marginalized talent. Without Russell we certainly would not have heard of Wittgenstein and who knows if/when Frege would have been discovered.

    I think we already have a case for Russell as number one at this point before we get to his epistemology, etc. In a certain sense the case for Russell would be better if he had retired in 1921, because the work after that strikes me as pretty weak.

    All that having been said I’m not sure Russell get’s my vote. I’m just saying a good case is there.

  13. Lots to think about here – a few quick thoughts.

    @Dave – I didn’t know there was that much value in the details of Russell’s work on philosophy of mind. That should count for a lot I think. So much of what’s valuable in Lewis is that even when you don’t agree with where he’s going, you learn a lot by seeing how he gets there. If working through Russell on mind is that instructive, that makes the mind work seem a lot more important.

    @Tad, Tom and Kris – That’s interesting that Sidgwick and others have the same kind of feel as slightly later writers in M&E. It makes me think the standard early analytic courses in grad schools should have a larger amount of ethics in them. Actually I already think that – I think at least for historical purposes they should cover Principia Ethica. But maybe the first writer in English these courses should cover is Sidgwick.

    @Peter – That’s a much fairer representation of the case I suspect than I did. In particular, I really should have said something about structured propositions, which is a big part of the plus side for Russell.

    But on the last point, I wasn’t thinking that bringing Wittgenstein and Frege to our attention was the kind of thing Dean’s did. I thought making sure Wittgenstein had a job, food etc was Dean-like work. I thought bringing them to our attention was the kind of work Ayer did for Carnap etc. That’s philosophically valuable all right, but it’s hard to use that as a reason to place Russell above, say, Wittgenstein.

  14. @Brian: I don’t think Russell shining a light on Frege and Wittgenstein is a reason to put him above Wittgenstein, I’m just saying that it is something he contributed. It goes somewhere in the back of his vita. But while it’s not the biggest deal, it is something. You can have an impact on the profession in this way. When you start adding everything up (from his work in the foundations of mathematics, to essentially killing British Idealism and the Brentano/Meinong school, to developing the theory of descriptions, theory of types, theory of structured propositions, PLUS bringing Frege and Wittgenstein into the conversation) Russell had an enormous impact on the shape of 20th century Anglo-American philosophy.

    For sure some form of analytic philosophy would have emerged from Vienna without Russell and Cambridge in the picture, but the resulting shape of Anglo-American philosophy is very very different in that possible world.

    By the way, what is the case for Wittgenstein exactly?

  15. Contrary to how the story is often told, Goedel’s theorem did not constitute a failure for the Principia, but for Wittgenstein’s (and others’) formalism. The notion that it might turn out that no formal system will encapsulate all of arithmetics was precisely what had determined Russell to take up the Principia project to begin with (he was trying to “see whether,” not merely to “see which”), and Goedel in fact was quite Russellian.

    Aside from this, the Principia influenced the way we do mathematics to an extent that is comparable to Russell’s influence on philosophy itself. Granted, he drew on the works of Dedekind, Cantor, Frege, Weierstrass, Peano, and others, but this is how mathematics works (and philosophy too). How many people are able to stand on the shoulders of giants and see further, after all? And of those who can do it, how many see as far as Russell?

    Another thing which contemporary philosophers seldom remember is that Russell refuted the idealist arguments against the logical consistency of space and time. This may sound like small stuff, but in fact it was a huge issue, and the only reason why we have a hard time noticing it is that is has become a part of the philosophical air we breath — we now “simply know” that space is logically coherent.

    Another thing that is very often neglected is Russell’s later work, which traces his transition from a Cartesian to a third-person epistemology , and from his well-known internalism to his widely neglected causal conception of knowledge. 75 years old, he was still decades ahead of his contemporaries, doing what was basically contemporary M&E while everybody else was doing one kind of linguistic philosophy or another.

    (While we’re at it, don’t forget that, for better or worse, Russell was at the root of both logical empiricism and ordinary language philosophy — the latter of course together with Moore.)

  16. If anyone has an answer to Ludlow’s “what is the case for Wittgenstein exactly?” I’d be interested in hearing it.

    Just to anger some Wittgensteinians into responding, let me say that the Tractatus seems to me sort of a dead end. If I’ve ever argued with anyone who used the early Wittgenstein to advance their case on a contemporary issue, I was oblivious to it. And while the later Wittgenstein has plenty of big fans, I sometimes wonder if the allure of his style makes people fly the Wittgensteinian flag over ideas that they didn’t really need him to get to.

  17. There is a runoff at Leiter’s website now. Wittgenstein is in the lead with as many votes as the two runners-up (Lewis and Russell) together. Frege has been added (this could take votes from any of the other three — lots of early Wittgenstein fans are also Frege fans).

  18. I’m inclined to think the Tractatus gets a bad press in part because some of it’s most plausible ideas got quietly absorbed, while it’s least plausible ideas lead to projects most of us now regard as spectacular failures.

    As an example of the former, take the idea that understanding a sentence consists in knowledge of its truth-conditions. In his survey of 20th century phil-language, Jason Stanley describes this idea as ‘extraordinarily fruitful, perhaps the most fruitful insight in the long history of the study of meaning’. Of course, it’s an insight that goes back further than Wittgenstein. But we do find one of the earliest and clearest developments of this idea in the Tractatus. Jason points out that the Tractatus also made connections between modality and issues of content that transpired to bear fruit when systematically explored by later philosophers.

    There’s also some timely stuff in the book about the demarcation of mathematics from logic, most of it a reaction to Russell helping himself to what we now naturally think of as set-theoretic resources to carry out the logicist program. (These issues haven’t gone away, btw. Think of the ongoing debates about the status of second-order logic.)

    I think there’s also room for disagreement about the extent to which the other parts of the book lead philosophy in the wrong direction. In the paper mentioned above, Stanley takes the book to overall have had a negative impact on 20th century philosophy, since it sparked a hunt for a criterion of meaningfulness, and we all know how well that went. I’m sure some would have similar criticisms of the book on the grounds that to some extent it ushered in the linguistic turn (the seeds were sown in Frege’s work and elsewhere of course). To the extent that one things these were horrible wrong-turns in 20th century philosophy, one is likely to think that their Tractarian roots were rotten. This isn’t an attitude I share, but it seems fairly widespread.

    I won’t even attempt the later Wittgenstein. I tend to incline to the view that a lot of the issues brought into focus in the Investigations and elsewhere get discussed a lot without people being willing to recognize their roots. For instance, contemporary philosophy of language largely marginalizes ignores the rule-following considerations. (Notice, for instance how large they loom in Hale and Wright’s 1997 Blackwell Companion compared to the 2007 Lepore and McLaughlin Oxford Handbook). But I think a lot of the issues the rule-following considerations raised, for instance those about tacit knowledge and how it can play a role, are getting discussed at present in the debate on knowledge how. (I note also that epistemology inspired by ‘On Certainty’ is thriving).

  19. I think one thing that Lewis has that few others can match is a kind of “zoomability”. You can read him for the big picture of how all sorts of aspects of reality fit into a Humean mosaic. You can zoom into to get the details about e.g. how counterfactuals relate to laws. You can zoom further in to get discussion of individual issues on their own merits (like e.g. phil probability issues about laws, chance and credence).

    And, you can do this zooming in on so many issues. It’s almost surprising when you find something sketched out in the “big picture” that you don’t find original and illuminating discussion somewhere in Lewis (one example: I don’t think he really ever did more than sketch how the reduction of the intentionality of belief content was supposed to go, in contrast to the details given for the language case).

    And you can zoom past the main thrust of the papers to find almost throwaway remarks and insights that in others work would count as whole papers (I’m thinking e.g. the sort of stuff in the appendices to general semantics on degree-truth for vague predicates). And this is without taking into account papers that are self-standing gems outside the “big story”.

    I just can’t think of any other philosopher that’s so thoroughly good at each level of resolution.

  20. One thing that can be said for Wittgenstein. In the case of Russell, Moore, Lewis, and so on, there’s a reasonable case that if they hadn’t done what they’d done, someone else would have done something reasonably similar before long. In the case of Wittgenstein (especially the later Wittgenstein), this seems less likely. So if one runs the counterfactuals, one could suggest that Wittgenstein’s existence has made more of a difference than Russell’s or Moore’s or Lewis’s. Of course this line of reasoning doesn’t take any stance on whether that’s a good thing.

  21. Professor Chalmers’ remark about the irreplaceability of Wittgenstein is so much more illuminating than the rest of the discussion on this thread that the peculiarity of his peculiar standard for judging the greatness of philosophers only gradually re-asserts itself in the aftermath of a momentary intellectual white-out, like the image of Raymond Burr slowly approaching Jimmy Stewart in “Rear Window,” an image burned to white again and again as Jimmy pops flashbulb after flashbulb in the eyes of audience and assassin alike, and yet after every flash Raymond Burr has drawn inexorably nearer, until out the window Mr. Stewart must finally go, and Professor Chalmers’ standard likewise.

    Not much would be gained in any case by rephrasing a question about the greatness of a philosopher in terms of the equally slippery quality of irreplaceability, but Wittgenstein is an especially inappropriate subject for this jeu d’esprit, because as soon as you actually look around for a possible replacement, you find Frank Ramsay, Wittgenstein’s thesis adviser, friend, and translator, and a genius himself, finely tuned to the frequency of Wittgenstein from the moment when he discovered the Tractatus and translated it for the first English edition, at age 19. Anyone who understands Frank Ramsay’s profound contribution to logic, economics, and probability, all accomplished before his death at 27, will find it easy to believe that he might have continued Wittgenstein’s work in something very close to the same spirit, if Wittgenstein had perished in 1930, and Frank Ramsay had survived.

  22. In addition to misspelling his name, it may be that I also damned Frank Ramsey with praise too faint, and in the uncountable infinity of universes underlying the hypothetical non-existence of Wittgenstein, there may be a measurable set in which Dr. Ramsey devotes his main energy to philosophy, instead of conceding the field to his famous friend, and instead of an approximate duplication of the Philosophical Investigations or an entirely different extension the Tractatus, there may be a whole shelf of original philosophical work by Frank Ramsey… and if there’s anything actually irreplaceable in the whole history of philosophy, infinitely elaborated to include everything written in all possible universes, Frank Ramsey’s locally unknown and unwritten work has as fair a claim to belong in that category as anything written in our own infinitesimal branch of the Twentieth Century

  23. Principia Mathematica was a great project, but it does seem to have ended in failure.

    I think in the above sentence might lie the clue to what you are missing about Russell (and why)!

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