Friday, February 16, 2018

The Philosophy of Bertrand Russell by George Santayana

More about Santayana’s thought than Russell’s
Having previously read a couple works by George Santayana and Bertrand Russell, I was interested in learning more about these two philosophers, so when I discovered that the former had written a book about the latter my interest was piqued. The content of The Philosophy of Bertrand Russell was first published as part of a 1913 book by Santayana entitled Winds of Doctrine: Studies in Contemporary Opinion. At some later date another publisher extracted these essays on Russell and published them as a separate book. This book should not be confused with a 1944 book of the same title edited by Paul Arthur Schlipp with contributions from various authors.

Santayana’s The Philosophy of Bertrand Russell is comprised of four chapters. The first of these chapters, “A New Scholasticism,” is little more than a brief introduction. Santayana writes from the perspective of a senior scholar commenting on an up-and-comer, even though Russell had published close to ten books by this time. Santayana encouragingly intimates that he admires what Russell has accomplished so far but disagrees with him on a number of matters. The overall tone of Santayana’s writing is one of a mentor offering his mentee a mixture of faint praise and mildly reproachful but constructive criticism.

In the second chapter, “The Study of Essence,” Santayana begins by explaining how philosophers since Plato have made a distinction between the ideal world and the world that man is capable of perceiving with his senses. Santayana describes Russell’s contribution to this continuum as a sort of oxymoronic logical idealism in which mathematics is seen as the underlying truth of the universe. The elder scholar then goes on to critique what he sees as the fallacies in this line of reasoning.

At some point prior to the writing of this book, Russell must have published some essay criticizing the philosophy of pragmatism, because chapter 3, “The Critique of Pragmatism,” reads like a response to such a statement. Santayana, who studied under William James, is closer to a pragmatist than Russell, but that doesn’t stop him from finding fault in pragmatic doctrine. In fact, this chapter is really about Santayana’s views on pragmatism and yields little insight into the philosophy of Russell, who’s name is only mentioned a few times in the entire chapter.

The final chapter, “Hypostatic Ethics,” is a more pointed critique of Russell, focusing on his conception of ethics. Santayana chides the absolutism of Russell’s ethical philosophy, seeing it as prescribing right and wrong in terms as rigid as mathematical equations. Santayana advocates a more relativistic ethics, not as relativist as the pragmatists, perhaps, but at least a happy middle ground.

If you are looking for an introductory or blanket overview of Russell’s philosophy, this is not that book. Despite what its title indicates, this book really reveals more about Santayana’s thought than Russell’s. A very brief book as far as philosophy texts go, it won’t take up too much of your time, and Santayana’s prose is more accessible and less cryptic here than in The Life of Reason, though he still has a tendency to say with a hundred words what he could have said in ten. Those interested in Russell will likely be disappointed by this book. Those interested in Santayana, however, might find it a satisfying read.
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