LETTER : Truthful, not hostile, account of Russell

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Given my great admiration and respect for Bertrand Russell and his work, I was astonished that Galen Strawson, in his review of my biography of Russell, could see nothing but hostility and condemnation ("The immaculate Bertie", Review, 14 April). I admire Russell, not only for his seminal contributions to philosophy, but also for the qualities that Strawson rightly attributes to him: courage, honesty and enormous creative energy. I also find very moving Russell's attempts to overcome his crippling sense of isolation and his deep dread of madness. All this is quite evident in my book, as has been commented upon by other reviewers.

Strawson says that I condemn Russell for writing love letters to two women, Colette and Dora, at the same time. In fact, I simply describe him doing so, with no comment whatsoever. Similarly, my account of Russell's affair with Helen Dudley lets Russell's letters on the subject speak for themselves. Strawson may or may not be right in his comparisons of the relative moral defects and virtues of Russell and Wittgenstein, but, either way, he does nothing to refute my position on the subject, since I have no position on the subject. It is not my concern to make a morally comparative evaluation of the two, and nothing in my book suggests otherwise. The condemnatory adjectives Strawson lists from my book were not used to describe Russell himself, but particular things he did and said. Even courageous and honest people can sometimes be callous, evasive, smug etc; to describe them being so is not a sign of hostility, but of truthfulness.

My concern has not been to judge Russell but to understand him, and, to this end, I have tried to paint a portrait of sufficient detail to do justice to his many facets. Strawson concentrates only on my treatment of Russell's affairs with women, but there is much, much more in the book than this. If all the pages dealing only with Russell's philosophical work were collected together, they would constitute a fairly substantial book in themselves, one that gave a more detailed account of Russell's intellectual development than anything else in print.

I do not know why Strawson defended Russell against charges I never made, but, on one point I agree with him completely: sympathy is essential to biographical intelligence. If I had not felt that sympathy during the six years it took me to write this book, I would never have written it.

Ray Monk