Thursday, January 21, 2010

New Book: Nasim, Bertrand Russell and the Edwardian Philosophers: Constructing the World

NDPR has an instructive review by Bernard Linsky of Omar Nasim's 2008 book on Russell and his 'Edwardian' philosophical contemporaries like Stout, Nunn and Alexander. I haven't read this book yet, but it seems to mark a new level of scholarship on Russell's external world program and its relationship to Russell's intellectual context. As Linsky summarizes things,
Nasim argues that Russell took ideas that were being debated and made them precise to formulate his own views on sense data and matter. Most importantly, Russell replaced what Nasim describes as a "socio-psychological" notion of construction with the precise method of "logical construction" modeled on the construction of numbers as equivalence classes, which he brought to the "Controversy" from his work on logic and the foundations of mathematics. Both the origins of some of the unusual aspects of Russell's theory of sense data as being non-mental, but also not material, are found in the Edwardian controversy. We also learn what new ideas Russell brought to the debate to make it his own and to come up with his distinctive project of constructing matter from sense data.
This is a very helpful contribution to our understanding of the history. Linsky raises some points about the amount of detail which Nasim is able to go into about the philosophers he discusses. For example, Linsky explains how Alexander influenced the distinctive form of realism which later flourished in Australia.

A larger question about Nasim's project concerns the extent to which we can reconstruct Russell's views by focusing on philosophers alone. It seems that we may need to look beyond the philosophical context to the scientific debates, especially in psychology and physics, concerning space and our representation of space. Gary Hatfield has made some progress in this direction and my understanding is that Alexander Klein is also pursuing some research into the links between Russell's constructions and the psychology of his day. This sort of work will hopefully complement Nasim's story by expanding what counts as Russell's intellectual context.