Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Bertrand Russell and ‘I’

It was quite late at night when I finished my 2nd post on Gilbert Ryle yesterday. Before going to bed I put my essay (or paper) on ‘Plato’s defence of the Forms in the Parmenides’ on my desk, firmly resolved to begin revising it in the morning. But I couldn’t fall asleep, and the longer I stayed wide awake, the weaker my resolve became. For as I wrote in my post of March 21, after returning from Prague I spent the first week relaxing ‘with Alan Wood’s Bertrand Russell and with Conan Doyle’s Watson and Holmes’. And as I was lying in bed after my day with Ryle, it became clear to me that I must devote a post or two to Alan Wood’s Bertrand Russell.

It was a nice day today and I decided to go for a long cycle ride. But before doing so, I re-read Chapter XII of Wood’s book, the ‘Analysis of Mind’. And there I read: ‘Ordinary speech, according to Russell, was the root of misunderstanding … When we say ‘I think’, we assume there must be an ‘I’ which thinks, whereas all we know is that there is an experience of thinking. Russell wrote that “the subject … “– that is, in this case, Russell himself – “appears to be a logical fiction, like mathematical points and instants. It is introduced, not because observation reveals it, but because it is linguistically convenient and apparently demanded by grammar.” As he put it in his lectures on “Logical Atomism”, delivered early in 1918, “a person is a certain series of experiences”.’ (Alan Wood, Bertrand Russell, Simon and Schuster, New York 1958, pp. 118-119)

As I was cycling towards the Cotswolds on the road from Dursley towards Wotton, my mind was full of the road with its oncoming and passing cars, for it is a relatively busy road. But it didn’t prevent my ‘I’ from having an argument with Russell. His view that ‘I’ ‘is introduced, not because observation reveals it, but because it is linguistically convenient and apparently demanded by grammar’ brought me back to Prague of the late 1970s. When the Human Rights Document Charter 77 was launched in 1977, years of police repression followed, and ‘prominent dissidents’ formed a tight little group with which ‘normal’ people avoided having any contact. I had two sons, and we became friends with Václav Benda’s family. I say family, for they were Catholics and had many kids. I used to play a lot with the youngest boy called Filip, who must have been about three years old. The Bendas had a big mirror in the front room and I used to put Filip on my back and on my shoulders, moving him all around, and always pointing at myself in the mirror ‘This is Filip’. Filip laughed and each time pointed at himself: ‘No, this is Filip’. He loved the game. One day Kamila Bendová with her children unexpectedly came to us; Václav Benda was imprisoned. I wanted to resume my play with Filip, but we had no big mirror. We had a lovely little dog called Dina; I pointed at the dog and said: ‘This is Filip’. Filip laughed, pointing at himself: ‘No, this is Filip’. And then I looked at Dina and called her ‘Filip!’ with the voice I used to call ‘Dina!’. The dog obediently ran to me and Filip began to cry and cry and cry. – Pace Russell, the ‘I’ is not introduced ‘because it is linguistically convenient and apparently demanded by grammar’. Its formation is a protracted, complicated, demanding business. To build one’s ‘I’ into an ever more coherent whole is a life-long task. 

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