Confidence and Publication: Comparing Russell and Wittenstein

Many writers get stuck with doubts, while other plow through. How you respond to doubt as a writer—the confidence with which you approach difficulties that you face—has a crucial impact on  your ability to write effectively.  In this post, I want to briefly compare two writers of high quality who faced similar issues and responded very differently. I can’t say with certainty that the difference between the two was purely a matter of confidence, but I believe the comparison is instructive. Perhaps it’s a reflection on perfectionism, not confidence, but I think the two are related: the more confident person is able to say “eh, it ain’t perfect, but it is good enough to move forward.

Russel and Wittgenstein

Bertrand Russell won a Nobel Prize for literature for his voluminous writings and was extremely widely published as a leading 20th-century philosopher. Ludwig Wittgenstein, who was one of Russell’s students in the early 20th century, by contrast published only one book during his life, and that book (The Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, which was dedicated to Russell) is not regarded as his most important work. In terms of their publication output during their lives, Russell was a giant, and Wittgenstein a shrimp. But from the current moment in history, however, their prestige as philosophers is equal, or perhaps Wittgenstein is given more respect.  

The Limits of Logic

In the 1910s, when Wittgenstein studied with Russell, their project was logic and, to some extent, the mathematization of logical thought.  The concern was how to prove (or disprove) the truth of a statement.

Russell’s book The Philosophy of Logical Atomism, published in 1914, is roughly contemporary with Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, published in 1918, and their subject matter is quite similar—both are works of analytic philosophy discussing logical proof. The question of interest here is how they handle the boundaries of logic.

At the beginning of Logical Atomism, Russell acknowledges an inevitable and unavoidable subjectivity at the foundation of what he is doing. If we want to prove the truth of a statement, we need to have some starting place—some statements that we know are true. But how do we know if something is true without having proved it? And how can we start the project of proving the truth of any statement unless we have something that we have already proven true? His response is to say, approximately, “we start with something undeniable.” Not true, only undeniable. He discusses what he means by undeniable for a paragraph or two, and then he moves on to other issues. Essentially, he says, “well, we can’t follow the rules of proof for our first statement, so we’ll just ignore those rules and accept our first statement as true because it seems undeniable.”  Practically speaking, that makes perfect sense; logically speaking, it’s almost inexcusable. Emotionally speaking, I would say that this is the choice of a person who has confidence in the value of their work, despite some flaws.

In the penultimate sixth chapter of the Tractatus, Wittgenstein similarly struggles with what is either the same, or a very similar problem: he sees the logician as existing within the system being examined, creating the same sort of unavoidable subjectivity that concerned Russell. His response to this, however, quite different. In the sixth chapter, he discusses how one cannot get the necessary objectivity, and that lacking that, one has no grounds on which to speak.  And he concludes the book with his seventh chapter, which I reproduce in full here: “Of that whereof one can’t speak, one must remain silent.” That’s the whole seventh chapter. One sentence. And Wittgenstein never again published in his lifetime. Logically speaking, this is perfectly sound. Practically speaking, however, it leads to paralysis. Emotionally speaking, I would say this is the choice of a person who doubts the value of their work.

Perfectionism and Confidence

To me, this is a story about confidence and a willingness to accept a logical flaw.  Both Russell and Wittgenstein recognized a similar logical limit, but Russell said “I will still proceed” while Wittgenstein said “This project is meaningless.” To me, logically speaking, Wittgenstein is in the right here.  If you are interested in a system of building certain truth through proof, the whole structure of truth fails if it is built on something that is not provably true. Wittgenstein recognizes this and essentially says “this project isn’t worth the effort because it’s ultimately fruitless.”

Russell’s response is very different, and I view it as a manifestation of confidence or even arrogance. Russell says, “weak foundations be damned, I’m still going to pursue this project.”

I don’t know what emotions and thoughts swayed the two men, or whether the issue was really confidence.  But as a lesson for struggling writers, I think it can be instructive: the writer who pushes forward ignoring problems, produces work for publication, while the writer who takes those problems seriously gets stuck, and even is blocked from publishing.

Getting projects finished and published simply takes a willingness to push ahead, despite problems and weaknesses in your research.

This is not to excuse shoddy work, but rather to acknowledge the impossibility of creating perfection, and to prefer flawed productivity with inactivity brought on by doubts and imperfections.

American Sutra

On February 19, 1942, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which gave the military legal authority to designate areas, “from which any or all persons may be excluded, and with respect to which, the right of any person to enter, remain in, or leave shall be subject to whatever restrictions the Secretary of War or the appropriate Military Commander may impose in his discretion.” It’s a sweeping power—“any or all persons…in his discretion”—allowing the military to select who was free and who was not, with none of the due process guaranteed by the US Constitution.

The power was used to target Japanese Americans, to force them from their homes and into concentration camps—camps surrounded by barbed wire, guarded by the military, in desolate locations, where they were forced into hastily built barracks. Most of the 110,000 thus incarcerated were American citizens. Many of those who were not, were long-time US residents who had been legally denied the right to apply for citizenship due to their race/national heritage. It is a great stain on the American promise of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

For the Japanese American community, today, February 19, is the Day of Remembrance, the annual recognition of the anniversary of Executive Order 9066.

For the rest of the American community, it is a bit of history that would be well to learn, lest we repeat it, or perhaps because we are currently repeating it.  In 1942, the Axis military forces presented a real emergency, but targeting innocent people was no worthy use of resources in that war.  Today, the president has declared that there is a national emergency (when there is none), and is using that emergency to put people in concentration camps (the recent spending deal, to which Democrats agreed, included money for 50,000+ ICE detention beds), as well as to build a wall whose only real use is symbolic.

Over the last several years, the history of the Japanese American community has been brought to life for me by the work of Duncan Ryūken Williams, whose book American Sutra, is officially released today.  The book is based on historical research started almost 20 years ago, when Professor Williams, a student of Buddhism and Buddhist history, and a Buddhist priest, discovered an original manuscript journal written by a Buddhist priest during his incarceration at Manzanar, including extensive notes for sermons.  Those notes led to his hearing the oral history of a girl, then age 10, who returned to her home from school one afternoon in December, 1941, to find her father being beaten by the FBI, while her mother sat watching with a gun held to her head by another FBI agent. And these stories led to others. Professor Williams interviewed those who had lived through the camps; he gathered journals written by camp residents; he examined the extensive literature already published on the Japanese American incarceration; and he studied governmental and military records. Professor Williams, given his background, was naturally concerned with the religious aspect, and it happens that in all the extensive literature on the Japanese American incarceration, little was interested in Buddhism and the role Buddhism played in this history.  Williams’s history tells the story of how the US government and US public  discriminated against Buddhists on the basis of religion, the story of how Buddhist organizations and traditions were shaped in these events, and the story of the many who found strength in their Buddhist faith.  The book gives a sense of the broad scope of events, and, through the many first-hand accounts that it includes, a feel for the experiences of those who were there.

In 2011, I began working as an editor for Professor Williams, starting with reviewing a chapter on the experiences of early Japanese immigrants to the Americas, then intended as a short preliminary chapter to the book on Buddhism in the Japanese incarceration.  That chapter has since been entirely eliminated, with its material now planned for a separate book.  Over the years, I have seen all sorts of excellent material that made up Williams’s research but that had to be excluded simply because there was too much good material if the book was going to get published. The book that Harvard published is an excellent book—the best work I’ve ever helped create—but I’m not sure that it couldn’t have been better to have been about 50% longer. As an editor and writer, my general tendency is to think that the best way to improve writing is to make it shorter.  American Sutra is a happy exception to that rule; the material on which it was built was so strong that it could have been better for being longer.