Nick Chater on Bertrand Russell’s Failed Marriage

In his 2018 book ‘The Mind is Flat’ Nick Chater discussed the nature of the emotions and used an example from Russell’s life to illustrate, what he believed, to be the precisely wrong way to think about our emotional experiences. In his autobiography Russell made the following point about his falling out of love with his wife:

“I went out bicycling one afternoon, and suddenly, as I was riding along a country road, I realised that I no longer loved Alys. I had no idea until this moment that my love for her was even lessening. The problem presented by this discovery was very grave.” (Bertrand Russell ‘The Autobiography of Bertrand Russell’ p. 222)

Chater argues that Russell’s view that he suddenly grasped some emotional truth about his love for his wife that he must act on; is based on a false theory of how the emotions work, and if others followed Russell’s specious reasoning it would be a pragmatic disaster for them. Chater’s views on the nature of the emotions are that they are ad-hoc inventions that we create to explain bodily perturbations in various different contexts. While to Russell his Bicycle ride contained a revelation he must act on; to Chater Russell’s revelation may have been caused by nothing more than a consequence of “a frustrating mornings work, or a bad argument.” Chater thinks given the ad-hoc invented nature of our feelings it would be a disaster to make decisions based on them and them alone.   However, before evaluating Chater’s take on Russell, I will first outline Chater’s positive views on the nature of the emotions.

To justify his views on the emotions Chater discussed a famous psychological result called the Kuleshov effect which illustrates that we interpret some emotional expressions of people’s faces depending on the context the face is presented in. Thus a person with an ambiguous expression will be judged to be hungry when placed beside food, or sad when placed beside a coffin etc. Chater notes that there is a general principle underlying this effect:

“There is a general principle at work here-the brain interprets each piece of the perceptual input (each face, object symbol, or whatever it may be) to make as much sense as possible in the light of the wider context.” (‘The Mind is Not Flat’ p. 92)


Based on this single experimental result Hacker generalizes further and argues that understanding of our emotional experiences may be subject to the Kuleshov effect. He notes that our own physiological states such as our heart racing, our breath shortening, and the tingle of adrenaline racing through our arteries (ibid p. 94), are ambiguous stimuli, and that in an attempt to interpret these stimuli we will invent emotional states to explain the stimuli.

To support this interpretation Chater discussed a 1962 experiment by Singer and Schacter which involved injecting volunteer subjects with either adrenaline or a placebo and bringing them to the waiting room. Unknown to the subjects, the waiting room was an experimental setting where a paid actor pretended to be a fellow subject but acted in a bizarre way (either manically or angrily). The subjects who were injected with adrenaline had stronger emotional reactions than those who received a placebo (ibid p. 95). Chater notes the following:

Crucially, and remarkably, their emotional reactions were stronger in opposite directions. Confronted with the ‘manic’ stooge, participants interpreted their raised heart-rate, shortness of breath and flushed face as indicating their euphoria; but with the ‘angry’ stooge, those very same symptoms were interpreted as signalling irritation.” (ibid p. 95)

The above experiment is an example of Kuleshov effect where bodily perturbations (brought on by adrenaline) are interpreted differently depending on contextual factors (the stooges behaviour).

Chater cites other experimental data to support his claim that emotions are ad-hoc creations to explain bodily perturbations and changing contexts. Thus he cites Aron and Dutton’s 1970 experiment placed an attractive scientist at the end of a rickety, wobbly bridge and an attractive scientist at the end of sturdy bridge. When the subjects crossed the bridge the scientist asked them a few questions and then handed them her phone number. Interestingly the experiment showed that the men who crossed the rickety bridge were more likely to ring the scientist. Chater interprets the experiment as revealing that the subjects were interpreting the bodily perturbations resulting from crossing the dangerous bridge as a feeling of attraction when they met the scientist.

Given Chater’s views of emotions as ad-hoc inventions used to explain bodily perturbations in various contexts, one can see why Chater was appalled by Russell’s admission that he fell out of love with his wife as a result of a momentary revelation. On Chater’s views Russell was operating under a confusion and mistakenly confusing momentary bodily perturbations and contextual factors with a universal revelation about his love for his wife. In point of fact it is Chater who is confused, and his confusion stems from a poor understanding of the nature of love (and emotions in general). Chater is incorrectly equating having an emotion with experiencing a particular feeling. Now while some emotional states do sometimes have a particular feel; not all of them do. Thus a mother can love her child without her love being identified with a particular experience. When a mother goes to sleep she doesn’t cease to love her child. Likewise when a mother goes to lunch with her daughter she may at times feel a strong sensation of love for her daughter; but at other times she is simply engaged in the conversation without experiencing any particular feeling of love. Nonetheless, it would be absurd to argue that the mother ceases to love her child when she ceases to have a particular warm fuzzy feeling. Love involves more than just idiosyncratic bodily sensations. To love someone; one will feel a certain way about the object of one’s love, one will behave in a certain way towards the object of one’s affection, speak about them in a certain manner etc.

Chater was right to note that explaining the emotions will involve dealing with contextual matters and bodily states. But his understanding of the emotions focuses too much on the feelings we create to explain bodily states and context; and too little on long term behavioural patterns; and cognitive understanding of what these patterns mean etc.

In Russell’s case his behaviour towards his wife in the years preceding his ‘revelation’ that he didn’t love her was revealing. In his biography on Russell ‘The Spirit of Solitude’ Ray Monk noted that in 1901 while working on his philosophical projects, Russell treated his wife like an afterthought who was simply there to serve him (The Spirit of Solitude p. 118).

Furthermore, while Russell was showing little interest in his own wife, he spent a considerable amount of time flirting with his wife’s sister Mary. Mary for her part noted that his constant flirtation made her very uncomfortable (ibid p. 120). While noting his flirtation with her, Mary also noted Russell’s disinterest towards his wife and homelife:

 “Mary recorded…”Bertie says he has resigned himself to being always bored after he is thirty. ‘At home even?’ Alys asked. ‘Especially at home, ‘Bertie answered remorselessly.” (ibid p. 121)

His entire marriage seemed to involve disinterest in his wife Alys and a constant chasing after other women; such as the above mentioned Mary, Sally Fairchild, Evelyn Whitehead etc. In the case of Evelyn Whitehead, Russell actually fell in love with her and spent the majority of his time worrying about her health while seemingly having little concern for his wife’s health.

Such was Russell’s intense love for Evelyn Whitehead that Ray Monk suspects that Alys was aware of it:

 “Alys had no doubt ‘perceived that something was amiss’ a good deal before this famous bicycle ride, as her depressions during the spring and summer of 1901 surely indicate. And, as Russell’s diary entry reveals, he too had been struggling for some time against the realisation that his love for Alys was dead (he had, after all, ‘longed, with infinite tenderness, to revivify my dying ‘love’ a month before the bicycle ride).  Nevertheless, though Russell clearly massively exaggerates-as is his wont-the extent to which it was a sudden and unexpected revelation, there seems no reason to doubt that there was a bicycle ride and that there was a moment when he ceased to struggle against the facts and to admit to himself that he no longer loved Alys.” (ibid p.145)

Given these facts about Russell’s relationship with his wife in the years before his ‘revelation’; Chater’s suggestion that Russell’s ‘revelation’ may have been the result of frustrating mornings work or a bad argument’ strain credulity. The fact is that Russell’s behaviour; neglecting his wife, having infatuations with, and falling in love with other women, commenting on not enjoying home life, writing in his diary about trying to rekindle dying love; indicate a man who had fallen out of love with his wife over a long period of time (though he clearly had difficulty admitting this fact to himself).

Furthermore this falling out of love didn’t involve a particular bodily feel rather it was a complex cognitive, emotional and behavioural experience. Chater though could argue against what I have just said by noting that it was Russell himself who said that he only realised he stopped loving his wife when he was out for that fatal bike ride. Chater could argue that if we go by Russell’s words his falling out of love was a sudden event that Russell accorded too much significance.

However, it is unclear how much significance we should accord to Russell’s sudden ‘revelation’. As Monk noted:

“Russell was fond-perhaps over-fond-of presenting his life as a series of epiphanies, many of which, one suspects were over played by him in later life for the sake of lending drama to the facts of his life” (ibid p. 137)

Russell may have had the ‘revelation’ while out cycling his bike. However, his behavioural patterns indicate a man who was no longer in love with his wife in the years before his revelation. The fact is that it took years after his ‘revelation’ before he finally divorced his wife, and in the years before it, he behaved like a man falling out of love with his wife. There is little reason to give the supposed revelation such a place of importance in Russell’s relations with his wife as Chater (and Russell) seem to want to give it.

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