Between Two Russells

As Aristotle observes, virtue is often a mean between a vice of deficiency and a vice of excess. I think the same is true of attitudes toward reading the “great books.” On the one hand there is the vice of deficient deference to the text; this is what Arnold Bennett complains of in his article “Translating Literature Into Life” (The Bookman, Sept. 1919; conical hat tip to Kelly Jolley), when he writes:

If you were invited to meet a great writer, you would brace yourself to the occasion. You would say to yourself: “I must keep my ears open, and my brain wide-awake, so as to miss nothing”. You would tingle with your own bracing of yourself. But you – I mean “ we” – will sit down to a great book as though we were sitting down to a ham sandwich. No sense of personal inferiority in us! No mood of resolve! No “tuning up” of the intellectual apparatus! But just a casual, easy air, as if saying to the book: “Well, come along, let’s have a look at you!” … We don’t give the book a chance. We don’t put ourselves at the disposal of the book. It is impossible to read properly without using all one’s engine-power. If we are not tired after reading, common sense is not in us. How should one grapple with a superior and not be out of breath? But even if we read with the whole force of our brain, and do nothing else, common sense is still not in us, while sublime conceit is. For we are assuming that, without further trouble, we can possess, coordinate, and assimilate all the ideas and sensations rapidly offered to us by a mind greater than our own. The assumption has only to be stated in order to appear in its monstrous absurdity. … Reading without subsequent reflection is ridiculous; it is equally a proof of folly and of vanity. Further, it is a sign of undue self- esteem to suppose that we can grasp the full import of an author’s message at a single reading. … I would say that no book of great and established reputation is read till it is read at least twice. … To resume and finish: open a great book in the braced spirit with which you would listen to a great man. Read with the whole of your brain and soul. Tire yourself …. Reflect. After an interval, read again. By this process, and by no other, will a book enter into you, become a part of you, and reappear in your life.

(For more in similar vein about reading, see the antepenultimate paragraph of Richard Mitchell’s “Why Good Grammar?”)

Bertrand Russell Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy is an exemplary case of the vice of deficient deference. Russell approaches the history of philosophy with a breezy confidence that he has little to learn from it, that it is mostly outdated, that 20th-century developments in philosophy have left it all behind, so that questions “formerly obscured by the fog of metaphysics” can now be “answered with precision.” In the book’s final chapter he explains:

I do not say that we can here and now give answers to all these ancient questions, but I do say that a method has been discovered by which, as in science, we can make successive approximations to the truth … In the welter of conflicting fanaticisms, one of the few unifying forces is scientific truthfulness …. To have insisted upon the introduction of this virtue into philosophy, and to have invented a powerful method by which it can be rendered fruitful, are the chief merits of the philosophical school of which I am a member.

And he offers his own theory of descriptions as an example of the new progressive order, saying that it “clears up two millennia of muddle-headedness about ‘existence”, beginning with Plato’s Theaetetus.”

As a result of this conviction that earlier philosophers were hopelessly muddled, Russell approaches the history of philosophy largely as a collection of antiquarian curiosities, and is more interested in what in his social background led Plato to say this or that than in whether he had good reasons for saying it. (The Routledge edition quotes Ray Monk’s description of Russell’s History as “exactly the kind of philosophy that most people would like to read, but which only Russell could possibly have written.” Apparently this was intended as a compliment.) Indeed, Russell virtually admits in the Preface that he is placing the philosophers in the space of causes rather than the space of reasons:

Philosophers are both effects and cause: effects of their social circumstances and of the politics and institutions of their time; causes (if they are fortunate) of beliefs which mould the politics and institutions of later ages. … I have tried … to exhibit each philosopher … as an outcome of his milieu ….

Indeed, had C. S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters not been published three years before Russell’s History I might have suspected Lewis of having the latter book in mind when he wrote:

The Historical Point of View, put briefly, means that when a learned man is presented with any statement in an ancient author, the one question he never asks is whether it is true. He asks who influenced the ancient writer, and how far the statement is consistent with what he said in other books, and what phase in the writer’s development, or in the general history of thought, it illustrates, and how it affected later writers …. To regard the ancient writer as a possible source of knowledge — to anticipate that what he said could possibly modify your thoughts or your behavior — this would be rejected as unutterably simple-minded.

Of course it is not strictly true that Russell is unconcerned with questions of truth in his History. On the contrary, he often raises such questions; the problem is rather the careless rapidity with which he answers them. He gives the impression of thinking that the way to answer Plato’s questions is to read Russell, not to read Plato.

At the other extreme from Russell is the vice of excessive deference. J. L. Ackrill describes a case of this in the Introduction to his Essays on Plato and Aristotle. Coming from Oxford, Ackrill had absorbed a fairly balanced approach to the Greeks – “not having been taught what their ‘doctrines’ were, but having been encouraged to study them as philosophers, to base analysis of their views on close attention to the texts, and to criticize and build on their discussions in clear, precise language without undue deference.” He discovered a very different world when he crossed the Channel to attend a Swiss seminar on Plato:

There the professor went through the dialogues, giving sympathetic exegesis and answering occasional requests for explanation; but when I suggested that a certain argument advanced by Plato was invalid, a shocked silence followed – as though I had committed an embarrassing solecism. The professorial exposition then flowed on. It was evidently assumed either that no question of validity was allowable or that correct exegesis would necessarily show the argument to be valid.

The vice of excessive deference is by no means confined to 1950s Switzerland. In, for example, an Amazon review by one Michael Russell (clearly no relation to Bertrand), Julia Annas’s Introduction to Plato’s Republic is described as a “Misguided Mish-Mash of Academic Conceit”:

This book is profoundly flawed. The author is oblivious to the implications of her admitted license. For instance, she uses the term ‘moral’ while admitting that it comes from a tradition post-dating Plato (‘Introduction’ p.11) and uses it to smear across distinctions Plato himself found necessary. Professor Annas refuses to deal with the core concepts, as core concepts specific to Plato’s time and place, and substitutes them playfully with her own modern day conceits. I quote: “I shall use ‘morality’ for the area of practical reasoning carried on by an agent which is concerned with the best way for a person to live.” Why does she need to do this? If one was to say “the best way to live” as Plato himself does, is that not sufficient? Does the reader/student really need a professor to explain that Plato really means ‘morality’?. Baffling is why so much time is spent on non-Platonic terminology. To continually butcher The Republic with these artificial terms, such as ‘moral’, ‘values’, ‘society’, and ‘state’ is to assume ‘we’ know more than ‘they’ did. This is a historical prejudice, and it does an injustice to the unsuspecting reader/student. … The author goes on to give her opinion on why [a certain argument about gender] is too general – i.e. her considered views on the merits of a gender equality argument – which is fine and worth reading on its own terms, if it was offered as such, but it is not offered as such. This is supposed to be a book on ‘Plato’s Republic’, thus the title.

By contrast with the elder Russell’s approach, which assumes we have nothing to learn from Plato and everything to teach him, the younger Russell evidently assumes we have everything to learn from Plato and nothing to contribute – going so far as to insist that we should ask of Plato only Plato’s questions and never our own. (You will not be surprised to learn that the younger Russell is a Straussian.)

I notice that beginning philosophy students tend to oscillate between deficient and excessive deference to the texts. I suspect this is because they believe those to be the only two modes of textual engagement there are. What the vices of deficient and excessive deference have in common is that each makes engagement with classic texts into a monologue – in one case from author to reader, in the other case from reader to author. Yet surely the more appropriate ideal is a dialogue, where the point is not to shape one of the participants into a mold provided by the other, but to cooperate in a joint search for the truth.


2 Responses to Between Two Russells

  1. Aeon J. Skoble April 30, 2008 at 9:02 am #

    Excellent point, Roderick. I’ll be sharing this with my dept.

  2. Irfan Khawaja July 15, 2017 at 4:36 am #

    We’re discussing this nine years after “publication” at my blog.

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