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.