William Donaldson's Week: Bertrand Russell cost me a bundle

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The Independent Online
I WAS as surprised as you must have been to discover from the book pages of this week's Sunday Telegraph that Paul Johnson has been working secretly for many years on Bertrand Russell's contribution, if any (the wool is not pulled easily over Mr Johnson's eyes), to the philosophy of mathematics.

Reviewing Bertrand Russell, by Caroline Moorehead (Sinclair Stevenson), he argued - asserted, at least - that Russell's reputation in this field was not based on 'any original philosophical discovery or approach, but survived more by anecdote than argument'.

Courageously ignoring early work of lasting importance - Philosophy of Leibniz (1900), which Stuart Hampshire, who is not a logician, admittedly, but in many ways a better philosopher than Johnson I've always thought, recently described as 'brilliant and original, the best book ever written by one philosopher about another', and Principles of Mathematics (1903), which Karl Popper has called 'one of the most astonishing books ever written, the achievement is without parallel' - Johnson dismissed Russell's masterpiece, Principia Mathematica (1910), on the grounds that 'it is unclear what it achieved or who read it', thereafter suggesting that such credit as the book deserved might be due, for all we knew, to Russell's collaborator, A N Whitehead.

Since I have always understood that Principia Mathematica is the source book of modern mathematical logic, further that Whitehead's teaching duties obliged Russell to work at it on his own for eight to ten hours a day (his grasp of ethics was in any case so famously secure that he was incapable of taking any credit due to someone else), I assumed at first that Johnson's review was one of those spoofs the Sunday Telegraph likes to pull from time to time; indeed, that my friend Ray Monk can now look forward to his forthcoming book on Russell being reviewed in its pages by Christopher Booker or Sir Dirk Bogarde.

I then decided, however, that such a very English practical joke was too silly even for the Sunday Telegraph, that Johnson must have discovered crucial blunders in Russell's calculations which he now intended to expose in book form.

I had meant on Monday to ask his publishers when we could expect this to be on sale but had to hurry instead to a BBC recording studio where Miss Jasmine Birtles, a writer and alternative comedienne whom I much admire, sought the answer to a question posed last week by Mr Tony Benn: 'Why should French voters decide the future of Britain?'

The answer was obvious enough, I thought, but I was prevented from giving it by Miss Birtles, who turned out to be one of those interviewers who likes to provide not only the questions but the answers, too.

Squinting with alternative rage and brandishing the Sunday Telegraph, she asked me if I'd read Johnson's review.

'Quite deplorable,' she said. 'Such beefy philistinism - far more insulting to Telegraph readers than anything a tabloid might attempt - is a complete answer, surely, to Mr Benn's question. Impertinence of this order would never be tolerated in France, where members of the Academie rank above royalty, cardinals and cabinet ministers, and have even greater powers of entry than VAT inspectors in the UK, being entitled to burst through your front door at any time to correct your taste or syntax. The sooner we become a colony of theirs, the better. You agree, I take it?'

I did, as it happened, but since I seemed to be there as a stooge or devil's advocate, I put up an argument.

'Johnson,' I said, 'has discovered some howlers in Russell's work and . . .'

'Bollocks,' said Miss Birtles alternatively. 'Five hundred pounds says he hasn't'

'You're on,' I said.

'Good. And here's a telling comparison. When Michael Dummett resigned from the British Academy because of the damage done by government policy to the study of the humanities, the only mention of it was a letter from Dummett himself to the Times - or it would have been had the Times printed it. Equally, when Michel Foucault died, the Guardian entitled its three-line obituary 'Sex Historian Dies'. When Gilbert Ryle died, he was given seven paragraphs in Le Monde and not under the facetious headline 'Le Spectre en Dehors de la Machine]' What have you got to say to that?'

'Not a lot.'

'And in 1984, you may remember, the Observer had to abandon a feature listing 99 reasons for living in Britain when it was unable to come up with more than five, three of which weren't even British: the Hovercraft to France, George Cole, Sir Karl Popper, Ronald Dworkin and Ossie Ardilles. Can you add to the list?'

'Certainly,' I said. 'Lord Searman, David Gower, er . . .'

'You're stumped?'

'I'm afraid so.'

Confident that we'd provided Mr Benn with the answer to his question, I went home and rang up Johnson's publishers, only to be told he had no plans, as far as they knew, to bring out a book on the philosophy of mathematics. And now I owe the alternative Miss Birtles pounds 500.