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In Our Time: Bertrand Russell

Friday 7 December 2012, 10:37

Melvyn Bragg Melvyn Bragg

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Editor's note: In Thursday's programme Melvyn Bragg and his guests discussed Bertrand Russell. As always the programme is available to listen to online or to download and keep - AI.

Bertrand Russell Bertrand Russell (In Our Time)

Hello

I'm sorry I didn't say anything about crystallography last week.  And I don't have a great deal to say about the Bertrand Russell this week.  This was one of the very few programmes we recorded and, as always happens when we record, we go a few minutes over, which means that we have to get out of the studio a few minutes earlier than usual which leaves not much time for reflection or extra programme comment.  In both those cases, what struck me most was the personal side.  Apologies.  Lawrence Bragg's widow wrote to me and said that she thought that we were indeed related to each other - quite a few Braggs in the Wigton and West Cumbrian area - and there was a photograph of a young Lawrence which is the spitting image of my father's youngest brother.  But I didn't follow it up.  Didn't somehow have the energy or will.  And after the philosophy programme, what most surfaced was the fact that he was alive and philosophising when I was an undergraduate!  And long after that.  My first wife had lodgings with the philosopher Peter Strawson and used to go to a select group of persons, including Russell, every week to discuss matters of high, logical, analytic significance.  I thought that I was somehow eavesdropping on the modern equivalent of Socratic dialogues when Peter passed on a few words about such meetings.  And again, I remember on a couple of Aldermaston marches Bertrand Russell at the front of the parade - or do I misremember? - he was certainly a strong part of the movement, and once again it was as if someone from a previous intellectual planet had been beamed forward into our own day.  There was something of the grandness of antiquity about Russell in his bearing, in his title of course, but also in the grandeur of his authority and the fearlessness of his opinions.

At the moment it's nothing but busy.  I'm working on a programme for BBC Two about William Tyndale who, in my view, rates as one of the greatest Englishmen ever.  And just to take one single day: yesterday.  We started by filming in the Church of St Bartholomew the Great off Smithfield.  The producer, Anna Cox, had fabricated a dialogue between Thomas More and Tyndale - then his sworn enemy.  The vehemence of the language between them and the strength of feeling and the passion of difference was extraordinary.  We finished in that most beautiful, secreted, early medieval church and immediately there was uproar in the porch.  A young man, who had been given a cake and a cup of tea to keep him warm, had - on the way out - noticed an artless tin cashbox which contained, it turned out, quite a bit of notes and a bit of cash which he'd whipped.  Spotted.  He was wrestled with.  He kept shouting "I'm homeless!  I'm homeless!  I'm homeless!"  His yells drew the attention of our soundman, Rhys, who raced out and put him in some sort of lock.  Police were called.  Five of them arrived within seven minutes.  The young man kept declaring loudly that he was homeless and that he wanted to give all the money back, if only they would let him go.  It was a strange scene.  There's an obvious tendency to be liberal and let him go, but there's also the fact that it's not much good having someone going round London burgling (it counted as burglary) cashboxes in churches, especially those which are giving hospitality and succour.

After that I walked along the Embankment to Lambeth Palace for our next stop.  Went in to eat at one of the cafes beside the big wheel.  Had a couple of sandwiches and a cup of coffee.  I'd brought my own chocolate and apple and sat and watched the crowd in this glorified snack bar and the crowds on the South Bank of the Thames.  There was something extremely happy about them.  The South Bank of the Thames at that point is crowded with little stalls which make it look as if it might have been London Bridge four or five hundred years ago.  There is a carousel.  There are those living statues, often sprayed with a kind of gold, as they stand on plinths in the shivering cold.  The big wheel trundles round and after the lunch I went to Lambeth Palace and climbed up the stony stairs, twisting and more and more cramped, to the top of Lollards' Tower, where young men in the fifteenth century who dared to distribute Wycliffe's translation of the Bible in English were tortured at the express wish of the Archbishop of Canterbury, and made to confess their sins in doing this heretical thing, i.e. distributing the Bible in English and thereby somehow taking on Wycliffe's views against the corruption of the Church.

From there to the Tower of London and Thomas More's cell - More figures largely in the Tyndale story - the cell from which he was taken to be executed and after execution his head boiled until it became black, stuck on a pole and then put on London Bridge.  As I came out of the White Tower - beautifully illuminated, such a graceful building put to such vile purposes so often - there were figures on the skating rink outside the walls of the Tower, almost floating around, they were going so fast.  And across the Thames from the stony Tower, a row of glass buildings surmounted by the colossally tall finger of the Shard, the top of which looks like a pointed crystal, pointing towards what both Thomas More and Tyndale would have thought was heaven.

Best wishes

Melvyn Bragg

 

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    Comment number 1.

    I was glad you stuck to the philosophy:studying mathematics,maths into logic,the books on maths which were the foundation of his major philosophy(analytical philosophy, logicism, classes, theory ofdescriptions, paradox,monism,denotation,acquaintance,empiricism,the philosophy of language).You covered the revolt against idealism,due to his love of certainty and his dislike of ungrounded assumptions or vague intuitions.I think you could have stressed more his attempt to see the physical world as a logical construction made up/inferred from sense-data we perceive,his attempt to parallel scientific method, which moved him from belief in experience to the world of fact(he admitted the existence of “facts,” which, in contrast to “experience,” were objective, but whose objectivity was based on belief in the existence of the external world).Although he sought the foundation of mathematics in logic, Kurt Godel’s 1st incompleteness theorem(1931) proved that in any consistent formal system are propositions that can’t be proved true or false without reference to criteria outside the system.Even if Russell and Whitehead had succeeded in reducing all maths to the principles of logic,the validation of those principles would have remained outside the system,proving a death-blow to their hopes of establishing a coherent and self-contained explanation of anything,let alone everything.The fact Frege whose work he disproved with his paradox, had in fact done all the work he was striving to do before he’d done it and his work had more long lasting effect and is now more famous.He could have saved himself a lot of time,but he did acknowledge Frege’s work and brought it into the light.

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    Comment number 2.

    His early avoidance of Kant (instead influenced by Hegel) only for him to come back to Kant in his last work of philosophy,when he should have started with Kant.I think you should have given a list of his greatest books to study:Problems of Philosophy, Our Knowledge of the External World,The Analysis of Mind,My Philosophical Development,Human Knowledge,Its Scope and Limits(certainly not The History of Western Philosophy!).He was also a one of the greatest philosophers of the century due to the beautiful clarity of style and his influence upon other philosophers (Wittgenstein,Moore,Whitehead,the Vienna Circle,the logical analysts, Quine, Ayer, Popper).Lastly his influence upon social thinking and movements of political protest(pacifism,nuclear disarmament,woman’s suffrage,sexual freedom,Vietnam, education,civil rights).I think like Darwin he could have had several programmes devoted to him,not as here putting a quart into a pint pot.Each speaker covered the subject with efficiency,clarity and gave good examples. He freed 20th century philosophy from psychologism/ subjectivity, and systematized logic.The general idea at the root of Russell’s theory of descriptions—that the grammatical structures of ordinary language are distinct from, and often conceal, the true “logical forms” of expressions—has become his most enduring contribution to philosophy. He showed how natural science can be based upon empirical foundations. He cited 3 drives:the yearning for love,the yearning for knowledge,the unbearable pity of human suffering.

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    Comment number 3.

    Why are Ray Monk's two volumes of Russell biography omitted from the further reading?

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    Comment number 4.

    It's sad to see the BBC have sent this entry to a side-shunting off the main line,so it's harder to get
    to.I think you are playing with your listeners and those interested in philosophy(cf.The Continental-
    Analytic Split) who want to engage with the subject and want to respond to the programme!
    Now to get to this column(where will; it end?)you have to click'Melvyn Bragg on R4 Blog,then
    click on 'Blog',to get to the present entry then click'comments'.Are you now sidelining IOT or
    don't you care anymore(due to the Twitter brigade)?Please rectify.Starts with Crystallograpy.

 

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