Psychological Influences on Russell’s Philosophical Positions

“Philosophy still has to learn that it is made by human beings and depends to an alarming degree on their psychic constitution. In the critical philosophy of the future there will be a chapter on ‘The Psychopathology of Philosophy’. Hegel is fit to bust with his presumption and vanity. Nietzsche drips with outraged sexuality, and so on. There is no thinking qua thinking, at times it is a pisspot of unconscious devils, just like any other function that lays claim to hegemony. Often what is thought is less important that who thinks it. But this is assiduously overlooked. Neurosis addles the brain of every philosopher because he is at odds with himself. His philosophy is nothing but a systematized struggle with his own uncertainty.” ( C.G. Jung 1943 Quote taken from Scharfstein ‘The Philosophers’ p. 377)

In my last piece I discussed Bertrand Russell’s strange views on mental imagery. How in some places Russell argued that he was an extremely poor mental imager; while his 1919 paper ‘On Propositions’, Russell argued that he knew from direct experience that mental imagery existed; and furthermore, real thinking would be impossible without the use of mental imagery. In a personal communication philosopher David Berman made a couple of comments which may be useful in helping further our understanding of Russell’s strange seemingly and contradictory views on mental imagery.
Berman works in the area of psychological philosophy and has developed a typology that he uses to help him understand the distinctive views held by the great philosophers throughout history. According to Berman there are two main types of philosopher (1) The Conscious type: Berkeley, Descartes, Socrates (2) The Material type: Hobbes, Spinoza, James. Berman also argues that there is a third though less fundamental type (3) The socio-linguistic type; Hegel, Russell, Rorty. He argues that some philosophers are a combination of types with one aspect or type being major and the other minor. Thus you can get philosophers who are a combination of the Consciousness Type and the Socio-linguistic type with the Socio-linguistic type being dominant or vice-versa. On Berman’s typology Bertrand Russell was Socio-linguistic thinker (major) and a material type (minor). I have discussed Berman’s typology in more detail in this blog-post https://wordpress.com/post/kingdablog.wordpress.com/10 .
In a general sense Berman justifies his typology by studying (1) Strong distinctive mental types living or dead, (2) his interviews with people who have distinctive mental types, eidetic imagers, people with Synesthesia, etc (3) detailed studying and reporting on his own introspective experiences, (4) detailed studies of the great philosophers texts and lives (Berman: Penult p. 5). General justifications aside we will now discuss how Berman deals with the specific case of Russell and how his typology relates to his philosophy.
In his ‘Manual of Experimental Philosophy’ Berman discussed a curious incident in Russell’s mental development. In his ‘Problems of Philosophy’ Russell argued that mental acts are directly observable and patently real. However, a few years later under the influence of James, Russell argued, not only that mental acts didn’t exist, but they were theoretical constructs not something we directly observe. This change of mind is frankly bizarre. It would be one thing if Russell, originally conceived of mental acts as a theoretical construct and later changed his mind, and argued that his philosophical position would be more parsimonious without the theoretical construct. But the fact that Russell originally argued that he could directly observe mental acts and later argued that we don’t observe them calls for an explanation. How could Russell be so sure that he observed mental acts in his earlier philosophy, and then later deny that he observed them?
Russell’s answer was that he was driven by a theoretical need to destroy idealism to postulate mental acts. On Russell’s account when he thought he was observing mental acts he was engaging in a form of wishful thinking. Using his typology Berman argues that Russell’s views on mental acts are evidence of the type of mind that Russell had. A person with vivid conscious experiences (someone like Descartes, Berkeley), would find it difficult to confuse a wish with something they directly introspectively experience because of their transparent access to their own conscious experiences. However, if according to Berman’s typology Russell is a socio-linguistic thinker who is excellent at thinking themselves into of the systems of philosophers; this would offer a compelling explanation of Russell’s strange views on mental acts. As a socio-linguistic thinker Russell’s direct experiences would be less direct than those of a type 1 or a type 2 thinker. Hence, for Russell when he claimed he was observing mental acts; presumably he meant observation in a less fundamental more theory laden manner than type 1 or type 2 thinkers would.
Berman’s typology could be used as a possible explanation of Russell’s strange views on mental imagery that we discussed in our last blog-post: https://wordpress.com/post/kingdablog.wordpress.com/305 . Again the fact that Russell argues in places that he is a poor mental-imager, and in other places argues that mental-imagery is indispensible for thinking could be evidence of the socio-linguistic nature of his thinking. Russell’s focus is so driven by conceptual concerns that he is unaware of how these conceptual arguments are undermined by his own reports of his experiences. I think that Berman’s typology goes some way towards explaining Russell’s seemingly contradictory views on the nature of mental imagery. However, as I noted in the last blog-post they don’t explain the nature of Russell’s reports of the emotional determinants of when he experiences mental imagery. So while I think that Berman’s typology is a useful partial explanation of Russell’s views I don’t think the typology goes far enough in helping us understand Russell’s claims. While most of the time Russell was the socio-linguistic thinker, that Berman describes, Russell had another side which he only became aware of from time to time. It was this side of him that he attempted to destroy with a cold rationality; he used this rationality try and contain his deep emotional experiences.
We saw above that Berman’s tripartite typology was a useful tool in helping us understand Russell’s philosophical claims about mental acts and mental imagery. Berman also uses another typology to help him understand different views held by the great philosophers. This typology distinguishes between philosophers who are primarily tactile thinkers (TT) or visual thinkers (VT). Berman argues that Russell is a TT and this fact influences Russell’s philosophical views on some subjects.
In his ‘Problems of Philosophy’, Russell famously analysed his experience of a table he was sitting on front of. Berman sensibly argues, that studying the nature of Russell’s description of his experience of the table, is an excellent way of discovering the type of mind Russell had.
In his problems of philosophy Russell had used various different intuition pumps to get his readers to note that they don’t directly perceive material things but rather we are directly acquainted with sense-data which we use to represent the material object. But Russell noted that despite his arguments showing that we don’t directly experience matter, people instinctively think they do experience matter. He locates this instinctive belief in the existence of matter in our sense of sight. Russell argues that as a result of our sense of sight we are led instinctively to believe that matter exists. Interestingly Russell doesn’t argue that our other senses e.g. touch lead us instinctively to believe in matter.
On Berman’s view when Russell claims that we instinctively believe in the existence of matter because of our sense of sight, and not because of our other senses; Russell is actually describing his own unique way of conceiving the world and isn’t picking out a universal trait shared by all humans.
In my previous blog-post I briefly discussed Russell’s claim that Bergson was a strong mental-imager. Russell had argued that both Watson and Bergson were building up their philosophies because of their idiosyncratic psychological capacities. However, Berman has noted that Russell’s views on Bergson’s capacity for Mental-Imagery were actually mistaken. In his Penult Berman cites the testimony of Bergson’s friend H-Wildon Carr:
“Anyone can who has the psychological habit of introspection can test for himself the prevailing character of his imagery and so can know whether he is or is not a visualizer, and if that is so I can settle the question finally so far as Bergson is concerned for I have learnt on his own authority that he is not” (Carr 1912 quote taken from Berman ‘Penult p. 73)
So according to Bergson himself he was a poor at forming mental imagery. So Russell’s conjecture about Bergson is directly contradicted by Bergson’s direct report of his own introspection. Furthermore in his Penult when he analysed Bergson in a similar manner to the way he analysed Russell; Berman claimed that Bergson was a tactile thinker. As Berman noted this discovery is a bit odd; as if Bergson and Russell were the same mental type then it is odd that they disagreed so violently about philosophy. To address this difficulty Berman appealed to his other typology of (1) Conscious Thinker, (2) Material Thinker, (3)Socio-linguistic thinker.
On Berman’s taxonomy both Bergson and Russell are tactile thinkers. However, On Berman’s taxonomy Russell’s major type was the socio-linguistic type. As we saw above the socio-linguistic type has less fundamental experiences and hence relies more on socio-linguistic understanding. Berman argues that because Russell was a Socio-linguistic thinker primarily and only secondarily a tactile thinker he relied more heavily on socio-linguistic knowledge than his own experiences in developing his own theory of the world. According to Berman, Bergson was primarily a tactile thinker, and developed his philosophy based on his direct experiences of reality. Hence, Berman has a justification based on his overall typology of why despite the fact Bergson and Russell were tactile types they ended up holding opposing philosophical views.
However, despite the plausibility of Berman’s claim that Russell was a socio-linguistic type, Berman went overboard in the level of superficiality he accused Russell of engaging as a result of his mental type. At one point in his Penult Berman accused Russell of bowing down to science when trying to do metaphysics. I think that this is grossly unfair. Russell did think that science was our best way of discovering the nature of reality but he never “bowed down” to science. Thus, for example while Russell did make use of behavioural science in his philosophy of language and mind. He was very critical of behavioural science on a number of grounds. Firstly, Russell was critical of Watson’s denial of the existence of mental imagery, Russell argued that it could be shown using the testimony of introspection that Mental Imagery existed. Secondly, Russell argued that basic facts from the science of perception and physics undermined the behaviourist’s claims to be making objective observations. Thirdly, while he thought behavioural science was of some use in epistemology, it didn’t have the conceptual resources to deal with some epistemic problems (such as the problem of the scepticism).
Furthermore, while Russell relied on physics in developing his metaphysical world views he was critical of some physicists interpretations of what science told us. Thus Russell argued that Eddington was badly wrong in claiming that science and religion were compatible. When it comes to the work Russell is most celebrated for his ‘Principles of Mathematics’, ‘Principia Mathematica’ and his ‘On Denoting’, Russell not only wasn’t bowing down to science, he was developing theories that went beyond any science of the time. The evidence from his critical engagement with behavioural science, his disputes with physicists like Eddington, and his own original philosophical contributions, are unambiguous refutations of Berman’s claims that Russell merely bowed down to science when engaging in philosophy.
However, even if Berman does go too far in his characterisation of Russell as bowing down to science when developing his metaphysics; he is surely correct in his assertion that Russell was primarily a socio-linguistic thinker. And Berman’s taxonomy divided into major and minor types does offer a partial explanation of why Bergson and Russell’s philosophies differed despite them both being tactile types.
As we discussed in my last blog-post, contingent facts about Russell’s life that were out of his control; such as the death of his parents when he was a child, and his being brought up by his puritanical grandmother, had a deep influence on his intellectual and emotional development. Such accidents of history and the philosopher’s defensive reactions to these experiences will influence their worked out philosophies as adults. For an example of emotions and their relation to a philosopher’s system see my blog-post on Quine and Emotions: https://wordpress.com/post/kingdablog.wordpress.com/228 . So while Berman is surely correct in emphasising differences in typology resulting in Bergson and Russell’s different philosophy; he is only telling half the story by neglecting contingent facts of life that may have played an even bigger role in the differences between their philosophies.
There have been some attempts to interpret philosophical systems in light of contingent facts about the life of a philosopher; thus in his ‘The Philosophers: Their Lives and the nature of their Thought’ Scharfstein discussed atomism as a philosophical doctrine. He noted that in ancient times the debate between atomists such as Democritus and their opponents were done at a time when we had a very poor scientific understanding of the nature of the world. Given the limited evidential basis informing the ancient discussions of the validity of atomism Scharfstein speculated that a major component in the position philosophers took in these debates was their concrete experience of reality .
Scharfstein didn’t just discuss atomism in relation to pre-scientific speculation about the nature of the physical world. He also discussed a peculiar form of atomism that has been prevalent amongst philosophers discussing their selves, their perceptions and the nature of their thought. In this case he also thought that discussions of the nature of the philosopher’s psychology would reveal why they were drawn to atomism:
“Therefore, when I think of the atomism of Hume, James, Russell, and Wittgenstein, I conclude that it must have been their inward experiences that made them receptive to the atomic disintegration of the self” (Scharfstein: ‘The Philosophers’ p. 77).
Scharfstein argued that the psychology underlying the atomism was informed by a deep depression suffered from all of these atomistic philosophers:
“Hume, James, Russell, and Wittgenstein were all undermined by suffering…underwent deep depressions, and all were tempted by suicide-Hume on only one occasion however. All four of these adopted approximately Buddhist solutions to the pains of life… Mach…was isolated, lonely and sensitive…like James, Russell, Hume, and Wittgenstein he adopted a near Buddhist solution.” (ibid p. 78)
Scharfstein’s analysis is interesting but he provides virtually no evidence to support his position. Obviously, undergoing great depressive periods isn’t sufficient to make one an atomist in the above sense. If it were then psychiatric wards would be full of people espousing atomistic philosophies. Furthermore, plenty of philosophers have suffered periods of depression and haven’t become atomistic philosophers; Schopenhauer is a notable example. Nonetheless despite the fact that Scharfstein’s analysis isn’t overly convincing it does remind us that contingent accidents life can play a role in the philosophy that a person adopts or creates. Bergson, and Russell may have both been tactile thinkers but they lived very different lives and had different aptitudes that may have lead them to adopting their different overall philosophies.
In my next blog-post I will flesh out Bergson and Russell’s philosophies and how it related to their lived experiences. I will then try to disambiguate the degree to which their typologies influenced their philosophical systems; and compare the influence of typology with the influence of accidents of their biography on their respective philosophies.

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