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PHILOSOPHY AND STYLE: WITTGENSTEIN AND RUSSELL by John Hughes Was there ever a great philosopher who was not also a distinctive stylist, whose modes of elucidation or comprehension were not inseparable from wholly individual ways of writing? If it is true that this is a fact often noted by commentators or philosophers, it is also true that its implications are somewhat neglected. A study of a philosopher 's characteristic uses of language can suggest a great deal about the relationships between thought and personality—between what is said or written, and how or why. The aim of what follows is briefly to compare Wittgenstein and Russell in these terms, to suggest something of how a study of this kind can deepen our understanding of the personal sources and contexts of philosophy. Russell's daughter Katherine once wrote of her father that although he was "a passionate believer in liberty and equality" he was, in practice, incapable of "fraternity," an aristocrat "who had been taught to think himselfsuperior."1 Such paradoxes and blind spots are, ofcourse, often noted in men of vision and principle, and it would be invidious to lay too uncharitable an emphasis on these words. However, the comment does indicate a track of vision fundamentally characteristic of Russell. In intellectual terms he was capable of imposing upon phenomena of the most diverse kinds a synoptic perspective of supreme sweep and rigor which, nevertheless, coexists with all sorts of necessary simplifi332 John Hughes333 cation, even evasiveness. As an aspect ofthis his prose can come to seem both satisfied in its own superior lucidity, and tendentious. An obvious, if perhaps slighdy unfair, example of the personal aspect of this is a passage from the beginning of the Autobiography: "Three passions, simple but overwhelmingly strong, have governed my life: the longing for love, the search for knowledge, and unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind. These passions, like great winds, have blown me hither and thither . . . over a deep ocean of anguish, reaching to the very verge of despair. . . ."2 The self-esteem which sustains and is sustained by this prose lacks relation to words, reader, and world. The vocabulary, sentiments, and syntax of this sentence assume an impossible grandeur which merely encloses Russell within his own expansive sense of his destiny. The comparisons here are worth pursuing. Russell depends on a congenial sense of an historic philosophical mission, and is adept at conveying his sense of this to the reader. However, he remains unreflective about the implications or nature of the process, and this may excite orirritate us depending on how we react to thewriter's assumption of our acquiescence in his own estimation of himself. The later Wittgenstein , in contrast, is far more suspicious of the way philosophy can be compromised by self-satisfaction: "A beautiful garment that is transformed (coagulates, as it were) into worms and serpents if its wearer looks smugly at himself in the mirror. . . ."3 As has been implied, for Wittgenstein philosophy, in one aspect, was an attempt to authenticate self-presentation, as it was also an attempt to evade "the edifice of . . . pride."4 The unremitting grappling with words reveals the man to the reader, while the exacting inner focus and process ofthe philosophy exclude any composed consciousness of self. What of Russell's writing on other topics? Here is an example picked more or less at random from On Education: But that is not the real issue; the real issue is: should we, in education, aim at filling the mind with knowledge which has direct practical utility, or should we try to give our pupils mental possessions which are good on their own account? It is useful to know that there are twelve inches in a foot, and three feet in a yard, but this knowledge has no intrinsic value; to those who live where the metric system is in use it is utterly worthless. To appreciate Hamlet, on the other hand, will not be much use in practical life, except in those rare cases where a man is called upon to kill his uncle; but it gives a man a mental possession which he would be soriy to be without, and makes...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 332-339
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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