Aesgir observes rather tartly that I am not loath to tell the same story twice on this blog and on that basis encourages me to tell the story about my tea with Bertrand Russell. Well, as all of you must by now have realized, it takes almost no encouragement to get me to tell a story so I will.
The story begins more than a century ago when a young man named Henry Sheffer made an important logical discovery: Sheffer found a Boolean operator from which all the other Boolean operators could be defined. This was in those days a big deal and after he published it it was enough to get him tenure at Harvard in the philosophy department. For a while, he was riding high and then disaster struck. The posthumous papers of Charles Sanders Peirce were opened and it was discovered that Peirce had 30 years earlier discovered a different Boolean operator with the same property (there are as it happens only two – Sheffer had discovered one and Peirce had discovered the other.) Sheffer did not take it well. He got sort of freaky, became very secretive about his work, and refuse to allow auditors in his classes. Sheffer retired in 1952, my sophomore year.
In 1954, after getting my Master’s degree at Harvard I got a traveling fellowship that allowed me to wander around Europe for a year. One of my professors, Hiram McClendon, arranged for me to meet Bertrand Russell. When I was at Oxford that fall, I wrote to Russell and he invited me to come to tea at his home in Surrey south of London. On the appointed day I took the train up to London, made my way to his home, walked around the block until it was the exact moment that I had been invited, and pressed the buzzer. It was quite a modest home, considering that Russell was an Earl, a peer of the realm, and one of the most famous people in England. Russell’s fourth wife answered the door and showed me in. The house had a central staircase and standing at the top of the staircase was none other than Bertrand Russell, looking, as you will know if you have seen photographs of him, rather like a plucked chicken. He invited me up to his study and offered me tea and pound cake. Almost immediately it became clear why he had consented to see me. Russell had been quite impressed by Sheffer’s work and in the second edition of Principia Mathematica had made extensive use of Sheffer’s innovation. I had been introduced to him as a logic student from Harvard and so Russell wanted to pick my brains to find out what Sheffer had been working on all those years. Alas, by then I had taken every course on logic in the Harvard philosophy department except Sheffer’s course.
When this became clear to Russell the light went out of his eyes but he was, after all, a peer of the realm, so he had good manners. “What are you interested in?” Russell asked me. “Well,” I said – you must remember I was only 20 years old and he was 82 – “I was interested in mathematical logic but now I am interested in Kant’s ethics.” “Oh” he said somewhat quizzically, “you prefer fiction.”
Well, I had just about enough moxie left in me for one comeback, and I had, when I was in high school, read Russell’s History of Western Philosophy. So I stuttered, “W w w well, s s sir, you st st studied k k Kant yourself, d d did you not?” Russell looked off into a distance that was forever closed to me and said musingly “I have not studied Kant seriously since 1897.”
The tea went downhill from there and when I left I was so crushed that I did not even write home to my parents to tell them I had seen the great man.