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.


Alexander said...

Thanks for the shout-out, Chris. I'm looking forward to reading Nasim's book, too. Let me amplify one point you made, and add something else.

The amplification: the arguments over sense-data (that Nasim apparently discusses) cannot properly be understood outside the context of a larger, fin-de-siècle controversy over psychology's alleged status as a natural science, in my view. Stout and Moore, among philosophers Nasim mentions, both participated. But so did people whose contributions, at the time, would have been thought of as coming from the "science" side more than the philosophy side, such as Spencer, Bain, Titchener, and James. (More on James in a second.)

One key question in this controversy was how to understand the proper *objects* of psychology. Other sciences, philosophers contended, had clearly-defined objects. But psychology did not, and this undermined its claims to be a real science. To take just one example of a paper that takes up this issue, see Moore's 1909/1910 Proc. of the Arist. Soc. paper, "The Standpoint of Psychology."

A second aspect of the controversy concerned psychology's relation to other sciences. *If* psychology really could be a science, then what was its role in the larger intellectual ecosystem? Following Hume, the "science of man" was sometimes pitched as a kind of scientific replacement for traditional metaphysics. As the point was sometimes put at the time, psychology, *not philosophy,* was to be the "Queen of the sciences." Needless to say, this was a hugely controversial claim.

This brings me back to Russell. Russell's external world program explicitly takes up this issue (and Chris, this is a point you helped me to appreciate). In several key places in OKEW, Russell says that the *point* of constructing physical objects out of sense-data is not to address Berkeley-style skepticism about matter (Nasim seems to agree). The point was to show how the data of this new (alleged) science, psychology, can be systematically related to the data of more established natural sciences, like physics.

OK, that's the amplification about the significance of science for understanding the intellectual context of OKEW. Here's the point I want to add:

Nasim apparently characterizes the controversy over sense-data as an "Edwardian" matter. In fact, the larger controversy over psychology that I alluded to above has a Victorian provenance. It traces back to the 1870s, and raged on clear through at least the 1910s. It starts with T. H. Green's "Can There Be a Natural Science of Man?," along with his attacks on Lewes and Spencer. There's a rich and almost totally neglected history, here, that's worth investigating.

And finally, here's the loose thread on James I wanted to tie up. James was an important player in this controversy. His early contributions (1878-1892 or so) would have been regarded as primarily coming from the science side of things, as I mentioned above. But by the late 1890s, his contributions grew more exclusively conceptual (philosophical?), and it's this more mature work that would issue in his doctrine of Neutral Monism--a doctrine to which Russell, of course, would eventually subscribe. But (and I'll leave this suggestion totally cryptic) I think there is good evidence that Russell's external world program relies on some of James's contributions to this debate during the latter's more scientific period.

So, to put a button on this long comment: Nasim is right to call our attention to the Edwardian controversy over sense-data. I would like us historians to broaden our view one step further to ask what was *at stake* in the sense-data brouhaha. My answer (sketchy as it has to be in this context) is that the sense-data controversy was one part of a bigger fight over whether psychology could rightly be regarded as a natural science.

omar said...

Thanks Chris for this. The book was quite limited in scope; I only wanted to restrict myself to a philosophical problem (that of the external world) and to the relationship between Russell's answer(s) to this problem and solutions offered by Stout, Alexander and Nunn to the same. For each one of these figures one can write an entire volume (a major deficit in literature), but instead, I choose to limit myself to figuring out how they were *directly* relevant to Russell - and I was helped in this by discovering a Controversy that many of these 'Edwardian' philosophers, and many others, were directly involved (I only use Edwardian in a rough heuristic sense, it does little by way of major historical work in my story, except to limit the period a bit). This I hope has opened a whole new space for Russell studies. There have been many hints that Stout, Brentano, Alexander, and other 'realists' were connected to Russell, but I wanted to get into the precise nature of these connections - and what this has revealed, I hope, will be of interest not only to historians of analytic philosophy, but also of historians of philosophical psychology and theorists of perception.

Finally, Klein and yourself are exactly right, to get at a more elaborate view, one must include the history of psychology and related sciences. And this is what I am currently working on at the moment. As a matter of fact, I am quite excited to have been introduced to Klein via this blog!

Omar Nasim

Chris Pincock said...

I'm glad that this blog has helped Alex and Omar! I'll look forward to the results.