Russell’s World

This is the second in a planned series of posts on Worlds, as understood by Descriptive Psychologists. This series requires a more careful reading than most prior posts on this blog; I believe the work you put into it will be well-rewarded.

The world makes sense, and so do people. They make sense now.

— Peter G. Ossorio, The Behavior of Persons, p. 2

The child Bertrand Russell lived in a world that did not make sense to him. His was not a mild puzzlement or a small discontent; he was in the grip of a profound, terrifying existential dilemma. His world made no sense, and he had no real place in it.

Russell’s early life was nightmarish. His parents died when he was young, but their deaths and the scandalous circumstances surrounding them were kept from him. He was sent to live with his Grandparents. He began to bond with his Grandfather, who also died unexpectedly, leaving Bertie in the care of his angry, hyper-religious Grandmother with her myriad rigid rules based on the view that man is inherently evil and must be constrained. Her world made no sense to him but it was all he knew.

All this changed when a tutor introduced Bertie to geometry. Working through one of Euclid’s theorems, he saw in a flash of insight that it was true of logical necessity – and in that moment his world changed. He saw that one could know reality with total certainty, through logical proof. This world made sense and it had a place for him, which he proceeded to act from with increasing brilliance and fervor. The “delicious experience of knowing something with total certainly” was the ultimate satisfaction that held Russell’s world together until the fatal day he encountered the Paradox that blew his world apart.

What can we as Descriptive Psychologists make of Russell’s world? First we can note that his was not the paradigm case experience (which is not to say it was abnormal or even uncommon). In the paradigm case children first learn about the world from living with parents and family; they see that the world makes sense, learn that it does and learn how it does from their early interactions. Again, the world to a child is like water to a fish; they live in it and rarely have reason to think or talk about it. (“A person takes the world to be as he has found it to be.” – Ossorio, Place, Maxim A9).

Living in a world that does not make sense is intolerable (“A person requires a world in order to have the possibility of engaging in any behavior at all” – Maxim A1) and a person in that situation has a strong reason to change it. They will do whatever they can.

And this leads us to a deeper view of what’s going on with worlds, because people can change their world and the sense it makes. The world makes sense – because people make sense of the world. The sense our world makes is not somehow inherent in the nature of reality; we persons create it. This is a core competence of persons: we create worlds that make sense, and when they stop making sense, we reconstruct our world into one that makes a different sense. That is what Russell did – first as a child, and then as a man after the Paradox blew his world apart.

A few observations:

  • What held Russell’s world together – the “delicious experience of knowing something with total certainly” – was known to him directly, in a manner far deeper and more immediate than a principle or belief or fact. His world was held together by the ultimate satisfaction* he experienced from participating in that world – by a powerful, direct experience of things fitting together meaningfully. In other worlds, Russell’s world of impersonal logical proof was held together at core by a personal feeling, his own experience of ultimate satisfaction. And it was his experience of the Paradox – of things profoundly not making sense as they had before – that blew his world apart.
  • As with Russell, so with all of us: We each live in a world that makes sense, and it is fundamentally held together by our direct experience of ultimate satisfaction that accompanies participation in the world. The sense the world makes is not the same for everyone. Few of us experience Russell’s version of ultimate satisfaction, “the delicious experience of knowing something with total certainly”, but each of us does experience our own version. We know directly that the world makes sense and how it makes sense, even though few of us can articulate it.
  • That “knowing but not being able to articulate what we know” is nothing mystical or mysterious or even intuitive; it’s an everyday aspect of human competence. We know our language well enough to speak it as natives, even though few of us can articulate its grammar. Great hitters in baseball rarely get further than “See the ball, hit the ball” in articulating what they do. A person as Actor is competent in ways that the person as Observer/Describer can often only allude to.
  • But again, there is nothing inherently mysterious about how our world makes sense. Water is not inherently mysterious to fish; they just don’t notice it. Likewise, we usually don’t notice how our world makes sense; we’re too busy living in the world that makes sense the way it does. We don’t notice it until we have reason to. That can come, as with Russell, from our world blowing apart. But it can also come from interacting with someone whose world makes sense in a different way, long enough or intensively enough to notice that, as Dorothy put it, “I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.”

How does your world make sense? What ultimate satisfaction holds it together? What could blow it apart? These are topics for the next posts in this series.

* Ultimate satisfaction and its place in worlds is explored in depth in my paper When Worlds Collide.

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