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Monday, September 14, 2020


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.


Charles Pigden said...

I always thought the BR vastly overestimated the intellectual importance of Sheffer's stroke. What else did he do apart from inventing it? Incidentally , as his Autobiography reveals BR worked quite hard to save Sheffer's career from his anti-semitic enemies at Harvard.

Eric said...

Great story, Prof Wolff. I think I know how you felt. I had two "meeting great men" experiences as an undergraduate in the mid '80s. The first was with Douglas R. Hofstadter, whom I'd become a fan of from reading his articles in Scientific American while I was in high school. I was ecstatic when I found out that he was teaching a course at my college (I think it was in the psych dept). I didn't think I could afford to enroll in his class because my schedule was already packed with very demanding premed courses (with a curriculum that compressed four years of courses into three years), and I also don't think I had completed the prerequisite courses. Still, I could not possibly pass up the chance to meet him. I decided to try to audit the course. I hadn't found out he would be teaching until after the course had already begun, so I started out on a bad foot by missing the first class. After sitting through a couple of lectures, I worked up the courage to introduce myself and ask him a few questions as he was walking across campus to his next appointment after a lecture. I don't remember what we discussed, but he seemed so completely uninterested in the interaction that I felt utterly deflated and never went back to his class.

The other was with Marilyn Mason, who was a world-renowned concert organist. I had no idea who she was, other than that she was the chair of the music school's organ department, which meant she was the person whose permission I needed to be granted access to use one of the organs to practice on. I'd been studying the organ since I was 4, and while I'd never been a particularly adept student, I wanted to be able to practice so I could maintain the few skills I did have. There were plenty of pianos freely available for anyone to play on, but the organs were under lock and key and required permission. When I met with Prof Mason to plead my case, she initially seemed sympathetic, and mentioned that I could turn out to be another Dr Schweitzer. I think she was aghast to hear me say I did not know who Albert Schweitzer was. The conversation went downhill from there (from my perspective lol). She said that, sure, I could get access to a practice organ—but only if I enrolled in an organ class. Unfortunately, my schedule was already overburdened, so that just wasn't going to happen. In the end, I ended up becoming a much better piano player than I'd ever thought I would be, as a result of having to make do by practicing in my free time on the pianos instead of an organ.

Matt said...

My favorite story of someone meeting Russell actually is from Sartre - one of his biographers tells that, when Sartre met Russell, to work on their committee looking into war crimes in Vietnam, Sartre (who wasn't super young himself, but quite a bit younger than Russell) asked Russell how he manged to stay so active at his age, says that Russell pulled out a bottle of scotch and said he drank one a day. The story doesn't say if if was a full fifth or just a flask size, but it's still a good story.

As for myself, the most famous person I have ever really spent any time talking to or around is probably the Beat Generation poet, Allen Ginsberg, who wrote an impromptu poem for couple of friends and me, and who invited us to sit at his table at a book signing after a reading and then go to a party with him. It was pretty fun.

Eric - on first reading in thought you were talking about Marilyn Manson , and was surprised to hear that he was a concert organist! Sadly, the world isn't quite that interesting, I guess.

Ásgeir said...

Thank you for the story, Prof. Wolff.

Jordan said...

Prof. Wolff, have you ever tried writing fiction? You're obviously a born storyteller, though of course fiction is a different animal altogether. But I would be surprised if it hadn't at least tempted you at one point or another.

Christopher J. Mulvaney, Ph.D. said...

Eric -
I was a piano student who started at the ripe old age of 6. I have never had the opportunity to play a pipe organ. One of the best concert I ever heard, though, was a Bach organ recital at the Kennedy Center. My brother and I had second row center seats. Keeping two hands functioning correctly is hard enough. The Lowery organ in my small parish church at least had pedals, and for an 11 yr. old kid, they were fun to mess with, or with which to mess. My brother, who lives near St. John’s University MN, kept me updated as they recently had their pipe organ rebuilt. i was amazed at how electronics and motors have replaced the basically medieval operating system. On the other hand, I have a NORD keyboard with very good B-3 simulation which keep me entertained (and no pedals!). Do you still play organ, or have you switched to piano, which, after all, has its virtues!?