the 33rd annual meeting of the bertrand russell society convened this past May 26-28 at the University of Iowa, at the invitation of Gregory Landini. The University of Iowa spreads across several blocks of pleasantly wide streets with the Iowa River flowing through its center and several bridges connecting the two halves. The river and a narrow footbridge across it lie behind the Iowa House Hotel, where some of the Russell Society members stayed. Between the hotel and the bridge stands a beautiful, futuristic early building by the California architect Frank O. Gehry, the prosaically named Iowa Advanced Tech Lab (see cover). Going out the front door of the Iowa House and through the park in front of it and along the river beside it bought us to the English and Philosophy Building, where the conference was held. The Old Capital Building, which is now part of the university, stands across the road from the park facing the river, and its gold dome, which rises above the campus, serves as a marker for the area as well as point at which the university and its life passes into that of the town. And the town does have a life. Iowa city is energetic and eclectic, with an indisputable college-town feel, a fabulous bookstore, and streets tightly packed with pubs, stores, open squares, street music, deadbeats and out-of-town gawkers – such as myself.
Though I arrived too late for it, the Russell Society's Friday evening dinner was at The Cottage, a restaurant in the middle of town (and that evening in the middle of a small music festival) and the first of two BRS board meetings, which I also missed, was held there after dinner. Some of the business requires explanation. The Board needs to be able to vote on issues by email and postal mail between annual meetings, and prior to the meeting a committee had been appointed to propose bylaws allowing for this, but after discovering that laws for non-profits prohibit just this thing, the committee found itself at an impasse on this issue, but proposed bylaws concerning several other issues, which the Board approved. These included creating the position of Board Vice-President so Board meetings can run more smoothly when the Chair is absent, creating a membership category of life couple membership and rewriting the bylaws in gender-neutral language.
However, the real business of the annual meeting – which I did attend – began later that evening in the auditorium of the English and Philosophy Building, when Gregory Landini kicked off the talks with ‘Solving the Russell Paradoxes’ to an audience comprising regular BRS members as well as new faces, including two very advanced undergraduates. In his talk, Landini (University of Iowa) defended the controversial thesis that Russell’s paradoxes of attributes and classes did not refute logicism (the view that arithmetic truth is logical truth), because, though not well known, Russell had in fact solved the paradoxes, and there is an available for the solution of them within Frege’s early system as well. Thus Fregean and Russellian logicism is successful, Landini concluded, “relative to their respective ontologies”.
On Saturday, Peter Stone (Stanford University) opened the morning session with ‘Russell, Mathematics and the Popular Mind’, addressing Russell’s views on the value of a mathematical education and using those views to critique misperceptions of mathematics in such recent movies about mathematics as ‘Good Will Hunting’, ‘A Beautiful Mind’, ‘Pi’, and most recently, ‘Proof’. Following Peter, Tim Madigan (St John Fisher College) spoke on ‘Arthur James Balfour: The Anti-Russell’, describing Balfour – who authored books on philosophy of religion and the paranormal and ran as Conservative Prime Minister of Great Britain from 1902-1905 and was Foreign Secretary in 1917 when he wrote the famous ‘Balfour Declaration’ – as Russell’s “bête noir”. Emilio Reyes Le Blanc (University of Toronto) then spoke on ‘Russell on Acquaintance and de re belief’ in which he developed a Russellian analysis of de re belief. Before breaking for lunch, Dorothea Lotter (University of Central Arkansas) spoke on ‘Frege and Russell on the Justification of a Logical Theory’, in which she gave a fascinating account of the differences in Frege’s and Russell’s views on logic that are suggested by Frege’s assertion that arithmetic is a branch of logic and Russell’s assertion that logic is a branch of mathematics.
Lunch was downtown, and for many meant a long table in an Indian restaurant, with quite delicious food served buffet style. After lunch, a second Board meeting was held to discuss the location of the next Annual Meeting, and the talks resumed at 2 pm with Matt McKeon (Michigan State University) reading a paper titled ‘A Plea for Logical Objects’. McKeon looked at a problem first raised by John Etchemendy for the modern Tarskian semantic account of logical truth: that the Tarskian account cannot be correct because it makes the extension of logical truth turn on the cardinality of the world, which is claimed to be a non-logical fact. McKeon appealed to Russell’s early conception of logical objects to respond to this objection. Following his discussion, Christopher Pincock (Purdue University) spoke on ‘The Scientific Basis for Russell’s External World Program’, arguing that in Our Knowledge of the External World, rather than attempting to reconcile physics with his views on acquaintance, Russell was trying to remove conflicts between the sciences of psychology and physics. After Pincock, Max Belaise (University of Martinique) spoke on ‘Russell on Science and Religion’, using Russell’s book Religion and Science as his point of departure to explore the relation between science and religion. In ‘On Denoting with Denoting Concepts’ Francesco Orilia (Università di Macerata), the final speaker of the afternoon, defended Russell’s ‘On Denoting’ approach to semantics and ontology against neo-Meinongian objections.
The Society met for dinner on the second floor of a local bistro – the One Twenty Six - filling it to the bursting point with people and conversation. It is the first time in my memory that the society ate dinner in public, but this detail seemed to have little impact on its members’ pleasure in good food and company. After dinner, the party trooped back to campus to enjoy a presentation by David Blitz (Central Connecticut State University) on ‘Bertrand Russell Audio-Visual Project: the Andrew Wyatt Interviews’. In his presentation, David showed recent digitalizations of old televison interviews of Russell by Andrew Wyatt.
On Sunday, Chad Trainer (Independent Scholar) gave a talk called ‘In Further Praise of Idleness’, in which he argued that Russell, who insisted that “there is far too much work done in the world, [and] that immense harm is caused by the belief that work is virtuous” in his 1935 book In Praise of Idleness, if he were alive today, would have even greater cause for concern about our current lack of idleness than he did for the lack of idleness in the world of 1935. After Chad’s talk, Allan Hillman (Purdue University) discussed ‘Russell on Leibniz and Substance’. Concluding the weekend came a master class hosted by Alan Schwerin (Monmouth University) on ‘Russell, Hume and the Idea of Self’. – Rosalind Carey