Russell and Hegel

I have a few minutes break from work and I’ve walked to the Personalabteilung here at the University in order to take care of a few things. Because I’ve been told that I’ll have a longer than average waiting time, given the summer break, which means more people with whom to deal, I thought I’d jot down some thoughts through my new WordPress app. Never tried this before, but it seems quite easy.

The past few days, when time allows, I’ve been reading and rereading many short essays and texts of Bertrand Russell. Although my first foray into philosophical thought came as a result of problems encountered in the philosophy of religion (Modal Logic and its application to issues concerning divine foreknowledge and future free contingents; Ontological argument for the existence of God; and a combination of both thereof to wrestle with the so-called problem of evil) David Hume’s skepticism as presented in both his Treatise and Enquiry, in addition to his remarkable Dialogues and Natural History, texts with which I first wrestled and from which I emerged forever under the spell of philosophical thought. Bertrand Russell, too, quickly became someone in whom I invested quite a lot of time: reading closely and mimicking the wonderful clarity and simplicity of his rhetorical style.

As my interest in Hegel grows more and more intense with each passing day, and as I continue to surround myself with analytic philosophers, and as I continue to be more and more attracted (a return really as I worked under the tutelage of Sandy Goldberg, Dien Ho and Bradley Monton as an undergraduate) to newer manifestations of analytic metaphysics, my reading schedule has included lately hefty selections from Russell’s massive corpus. Why this connection? That is, why, if I’m interested in new developments in metaphysics would I return to Bertrand Russell and the grand/parents of analytic philosophy.? For isn’t analytic metaphysics as contradiction? Doesn’t the Linguistic Turn represent the motivating domain of analytic philosophers as so eloquently argued by Michael Dummett? However, a brief detour through the founding texts of analytic philosophy shows that, according to Dummett’s stringent criteria, many of the grandpappas and pappas of the analytic movement do not in fact count precisely as anayltic philosophers. Frege’s On Concept, Thought, etc. Read through most of Russell’s work on one will encounter standard metaphysical concepts addressed on nearly every page. Furthermore, depsite Russell’s many twists and turns he didn’t subscribe to Dummett’s fixation on linguistic analysis; rather he was consistently concerned with the nature of the world and our knowledge of it. Wittgenstein, Moore, etc. The word “analysis” emerged from the pen of Bradley as he railed against the method of analysis as practiced by his new enemies. Bradley objected to analysis because, after breaking something down into its constitutive components one ends up not with the fact with which one started: To dissect is to murder.

Russell’s philosophical Kehre pivots around his and Moore’s (really Moore’s and Russell’s following) defection from British Idealism’s Hegelian influence as detailed in a number of Russell’s works. In My Philosophical Development he states that upon his rejection of the axiom of “internal relations”  he began to “believe everything the Hegelians disbelieved” and a nice passage from Our Knowledge of the External World. Here’s an excerpt from the latter:

“Mr Bradley has worked out a theory according to which, in all judgment, we are ascribing a predicate to Reality as a whole; and this theory is derived from Hegel. Now the traditional logic holds that every proposition ascribes a predicate to a subject, the Absolute, for if there were two, the proposition that there were two would not ascribe a predicate to either. Thus Hegel’s doctrine, that philosophical propositions must be of the form, “the Absolute is such and such”, depends upon the traditional belief in the universality of the subject-predicate form. This belief, being traditional, scarcely self-conscious, and not supposed to be important, operates underground, and is assumed in arguments which, like the refutations of relations, appear at first such as to establish its truth. This is the most important respect in which Hegel uncritically assumes the traditional logic.” (Quote copied from email exchange…I don’t have this memorized!)

I’m not concerned at the moment with engaging too intensely with this passage and what I believe is its fundamental misconception of Hegel’s arguments regarding subject-predicate form and judgments. Furthemore,  the “uncritical” assumption Russell believes Hegel unjustifiably made misses completely the critical motivation of Hegel’s SL. On the road to understanding Hegel my current status thinks that the last sentence from Russell is not accurate. The main methodological point of the SL is the introduction of a hyper-critical, presuppositionless beginning, one which does not assume any particular logic to be true or valid for thought or constitutive of the nature of thought in order that thought can determine itself to the philosopher. A fundamental disagreement Russell had with Bradley and not necessarily therefore with Hegel, because I’m not sure to what extent Hegel agreed with Bradley, was the holistic nature of B’s idealism. Russell therefore opposed his own atomistic pluaralism to Hegel’s reported “bowl of jelly” ontology. We could also note here a space of disagreement between Frege and Wittgenstein on the one hand and Moore and Russell on the other given the former’s commitment to a “context principle”, clearly in tension with the latter’s atomistic analysis of treating atoms as meaningful in themselves.


2 responses to “Russell and Hegel

  1. I know that Hegel SAID he was being presuppositionless, or at least, this was his goal. But is this perhaps yet one more moment, part of the logic of being which needs to be superseded?

  2. Thanks for the comment Chris. I agree that Hegel did say that his particular “method” of inquiry would seek to investigate the nature of thought without presupposing anything about the nature of thought. Furthermore, after encountering the objections posed by Schelling, Heidegger and Gadamer with regard to the viability and success of Hegel’s beginning, I’m not convinced their arguments vitiate Hegel’s argument. Now, one could object to the transitions Hegel makes from concept to concept; I certainly would thus far in my reading the text…still rather infant-like I admit.
    Your question hits upon something I’ve been wrestling with the past months: to what extent should we take seriously Hegel’s claims that the analysis of thought should be without presuppositions? Is this a necessary option today? Was it ever a philosophical option? Is it necessary? These are good questions to which I don’t at the moment have articulate answers. I have some intuitions and made some baby-steps…but, still an infant unfortunately. I would counter though with the following question: Why would we need to supercede presuppositionlessness? It’s surely de rigueur to do so…but, that’s not an argument against it. And, I’m not claiming this is your position as i’m sure you noted.

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