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On Norbert Wiener's Relationship with Bertrand Russell
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The later “Father of Cybernetics” Norbert Wiener (1894–1964) first arrived at Trinity College, Cambridge in September of 1913. Traveling with him was his entire family, spearheaded by his father Leo who had seized on the opportunity to take a year of sabbatical from his professorship at Harvard and accompany his newly graduated son to Europe. Norbert’s doctoral thesis in mathematical logic and philosophy had won one of Harvard’s prestigious one-year graduate fellowships to study abroad. He was 18 years old.
No doubt influenced by the interests of his father Leo, Norbert decided to spend his first year as a post-graduate in England. As Conway & Siegelman (2005) write:
“Young Wiener strode through the great gate of Trinity College, Cambridge, the Mecca of modern philosophy and the new mathematical logic, with his father in lock-step behind him”.
Waiting for him there, was the world’s perhaps foremost senior authority on the philosophy of mathematics, Bertrand Russell (1872–1970). Russell had made his name as a logician with the publication the work The Principles of Mathematics in 1903, followed seven years later by the still-yet-to-be-surpassed Herculean three-volume work the Principia Mathematica (1910–13) co-authored with his academic advisor Alfred North Whitehead (1861–1947).
Young Norbert Wiener
Although he was merely 18 years old, Norbert Wiener had already spent nearly seven years in higher education when he first met Russell. Accepted to Tufts College at the age of twelve, Norbert had early on been singled out as a gifted child, adorning the front page of Joseph Publitzer’s paper New York World under the auspicious title “The Most Remarkable Boy in the World”. Although
“Leo Wiener hand-delivered his son to Bertrand Russell”
in 1913 (Conway & Siegelman, 2009), the question of what had prompted Norbert to want to go to Cambridge still remains somewhat illucive. Indeed, Norbert had studied both Greek, German, physics, biology and mathematics at Tufts University while in college, graduating cum laude at 14 years old with a major in mathematics:
“In spite of this interest in biology, it was in mathematics that I was graduated. I had studied mathematics every year in college […] found calculus and differential equations quite easy, and I used to discuss them with my father who was thoroughly oriented in the ordinary college mathematics.”
At Harvard, Norbert had decided to focus in on zoology in what was perhaps an act of teenage rebellion against his father Leo who “was rather unwilling to concur in it. He had thought it might be possible for me to go to medical school” (Wiener, 1953). Unfortunately, the emphasis on laboratory work combined with Wiener’s poor eyesight turned out to make zoology (and medicine, for that matter) a particularly difficult specialization for him. Thus, Norbert Wiener’s rebellion against his father was not very long lasting, as he soon thereafter made the switch to philosophy. As Wiener later wrote:
“As usual the decision was made by my father. He decided that such success as I had made as an undergraduate at Tufts in philosophy indicated the true bent of my career. I was to become a philosopher.”
Wiener transferred to Cornell for his study of philosophy in 1910, but—following a “black year” of feeling insecure and out-of-place—transferred back to Harvard Graduate School the following year. Originally intending to work with philosopher Josiah Royce (1855–1916) for his Ph.D. in mathematical logic, due to the latter’s onset illness, Wiener had to recruit his former professor at Tufts College— Karl Schmidt—to take his place. Schmidt, who Wiener himself later stated was “then a young man, vigorously interested in mathematical logic” was the person who inspired him to investigate a comparison between the algebra of relatives of Ernst Schroeder (1841–1902) and that of Whitehead and Russell’s Principia Mathematica. As Wiener later wrote in his memoir (Wiener, 1953):
“There was a lot of formal work to be done on this topic which I found easy”
Thus, Norbert Wiener wrote his doctoral thesis in mathematical philosophy on the topic of formal logic. The essential results of his dissertation were published the following year in the 1914 paper “A simplification in the logic of relations” in the Proceedings of the Cambridge Philosophical Society. The coming fall, Wiener traveled to Europe to conduct postdoctoral work in the hopes that he might eventually land a permanent position on the faculty of one America’s prominent universities. As Leo wrote to Russell in 1913 (Montagnini, 2017):
“His [Norbert’s] predilection is entirely for modern logic, and he wishes during his one or two years’ stay in Europe to be benefited from those who have done distinguished work in that direction.”
Russell’s View in 1913
Bertrand Russell was mainly a realist, largely sharing the views of George E. Moore (1873-1958). As he would later write, Russell had been initiated into the philosophy of realism by the works of Georg W. F. Hegel (1770-1831) (Montagnini, 2017):
“[G.E. Moore] also had a Hegelian period […] He took the lead in rebellion, and I followed, with a sense of emancipation. Bradley argued that everything common sense believes in is mere appearance; we reverted to the opposite extreme, and thought that everything is real that common sense, uninfluenced by philosophy or theology, supposes real.”
As Montagnini (2017) writes, Russell’s philosophy of mathematics seems to have two main characteristics:
Logicism, the belief that mathematics can find a rigorous and aboslute foundation in logic;
Platonic realism, the belief that truths in mathematics are discovered, not invented;
Russell had demonstrated his conviction and predilection for the first in the realization of the three volumes of the Principia, which in 1913 was the most complete and coherent piece of mathematical philosophy to date. Renowned still for its rigor, the work among other efforts, infamously grounded the theory of addition to logic by proving—in no less than thirty pages—the validity of the proposition that 1+1 = 2. The second characteristic is typically traced back to Russell’s reading of and fascination with the work of Gottleb Frege (1848-1925).
Following the writing of the Principia, Russell moved on to write The Problems of Philosophy (1912), wherein he tackled the theory of knowledge, proposing a new theory of what he called ‘sense data’. The theory argued that “factual knowledge is the only true knowledge”, and that such knowledge may be subdivided into “knowledge by acquaintance” and “knowledge by description”, the former being knowledge which is attained first hand, and the latter being knowledge derived from the former.
The Other Boy Genius (1911-12)
By the time Wiener arrived at Trinity College, Russell was 41 years old and already in the midst of mentoring another young logician, the then-24-year-old Ludwig Josef Johann Wittgentsein (1889–1951). Two years prior, in 1911, the Austrian Wittgenstein had dropped out of an engineering programme in Manchester in order to focus completely on logic and the foundations of mathematics. Before doing so, Wittgenstein had visited Russell’s hero Frege at the University of Jena (Kanterian, 2007):
“I was shown into Frege's study. Frege was a small, neat man with a pointed beard who bounced around the room as he talked. He absolutely wiped the floor with me, and I felt very depressed; but at the end he said 'You must come again', so I cheered up. I had several discussions with him after that. Frege would never talk about anything but logic and mathematics, if I started on some other subject, he would say something polite and then plunge back into logic and mathematics.”
Frege suggested Wittgenstein attend the University of Cambridge and study with Russell. Unanncounced, not long after, Wittgenstein showed up in Russell’s office at Trinity College, on October 18th 1911. As Russell later wrote:
“An unknown German appeared, speaking very little English but refusing to speak German. He turned out to be a man who had learned engineering at Charlottenburg, but during this course had acquired, by himself, a passion for the philosophy of mathematics & has now come to Cambridge on purpose to hear me.”
Wittgenstein was soon not only attending Russell's lectures, but dominating them and following Russell back to his office to discuss more philosophy. Although irritated, Russell came to believe that Wittgenstein was a genius, writing by November 1911 that:
“Some of his early views made the decision difficult. He maintained, for example, at one time that all existential propositions are meaningless. This was in a lecture room, and I invited him to consider the proposition: 'There is no hippopotamus in this room at present.' When he refused to believe this, I looked under all the desks without finding one; but he remained unconvinced.”
and by February of 1912:
“I love him & feel he will solve the problems I am too old to solve ... He is the young man one hopes for.”
Wittenstein later confessed that Russell’s attention and interest in his work had proven to be his salvation, ending nine years of frustration and contemplations of suicide. As Monk (1990) later argued, Russell’s attention may indeed have saved Wittgenstein’s life.
Wiener’s Relationship with Leo
Norbert Wiener was himself no stranger to depression and the dangers of existentialism, having been described as both a “careful” and “sensitive” child. Wiener himself once recounted being “filled with gloom” from walking passed a hospital for “incurables” and even at an advanced age recalled how he was “instilled an abhorrence of suffering” from visiting a blacksmith whose toe had been crushed by a horse (Conway and Siegelman, 2005). As he would later write:
“If a child or a grandchild of mine should be as disturbed as I was, I should take him to a psychoanalyst, not with confidence that the treatment would be successful in some definitive way, but at least with the hope that there might be a certain understanding and a certain measure of relief”
In some sense growing up as the main subject of an “experiment” in child-rearing conducted by his father Leo, Norbert had even from his earliest years been subject to pressures and the feelings of inadequacies which may accompany the unrealistic expectations of a domineering parent. As described by physiscist Freeman Dyson (1923–2020) in his essay “The Tragic Tale of a Genius” in The New York Review of Books (2005):
"While he was growing up and trying to escape from his notoriety as a prodigy at Tufts and Harvard, Leo was making matters worse by trumpeting Norbert's accomplishments in newspapers and popular magazines"
Indeed, Norbert’s father would also herald his educational ideas publicly, in addition to the New York World article, in issues of the Boston Evening Record, the American Journal of Pediatrics and American Magazine. In fact, Leo Wiener appears to have “made no bones about his intentional molding of Norbert and his sisters to make them geniuses” (Heims, 1980):
“Professor Leo Wiener, of Harvard University [...] believes that the secret of precocious mental development lies in early training. [...] He is the father of four children, ranging in age from four to sixteen; and he has had the courage of his convictions in making them the subjects of an educational experiment. The results have [...] been astounding, more especially in the case of his oldest son, Norbert.” —American Magazine (June, 1911)
The pressures that accompanied the attention especially affected Wiener later in life, who “at his low points, fell prey to paralyzing depressions that drove him to threaten suicide frequently in the confines of his home and family, and at times among his MIT colleagues.” (Nasar, 1998). Indeed, in the dedication to his 1954 book “The Human Use of Human Beings”, Wiener wrote:
“To the memory of my father Leo Wiener, formerly professor of Slavic languages at Harvard University. My closest mentor and dearest antagonist”
Wiener Arrives in Cambridge (1913)
Norbert first arrived at Trinity College, Cambridge in September of 1913. Traveling with him was his entire family, spearheaded by his father Leo who had seized on the opportunity to take a year of sabbatical from Harvard and join his son in Europe. As Russell later recalled (Grattan-Guinness, 1975):
“At the end of Sept. an infent prodigy named Wiener, Ph.D. (Harvard) aged 18, turned up with his father, who teaches Slavonic lanauges there, having first come to America to found a vegetarian communist colony, but having abandoned that intention for farming, and farming for the teaching of various subjects, (say) mathematics, Roman Law, and minerology, in various unviersities.”
Russell’s first impression of the young Wiener was not a positive one:
“The youth has been flattered, and thinks himself God Almighty—there is a perpetual contest between him and me as to which is to do the teaching”
As Grattan-Guinness (1975) later wrote,
“The truth of the matter would seem to have been as follows. Wiener had been the recipient of excessive praise and hero-worship from an early age, and came to Cambridge University with a confident veneer of omniscience”.
“Russell, we may be sure, fully recognized his abilities, but was reluctant to openly express his approval because he realised that the young man was incapable of accepting praise as other than an inalienable right”.
Socially inept as he may have been (on account of his father’s upbringing), Wiener appears to have picked up on Russell’s hostility and reciprocated, writing later to Leo that:
“I have a great dislike for Russell; I cannot explain it completely, but I feel detestation for the man. As far as any sympathy with me, or with anyone else, I believe [sic], he is an iceberg. His mind impresses one as a keen, cold, narrow logical machine”
While in Cambridge, Wiener attended two courses given by Russell. One of them, on the theory of knowledge, included a presentation of Russell’s 1912 work on the theory of sense data. Despite their apparent mutual antagonism, Wiener later described the course as “an extremely elegant presentation of his views on sense data as the raw material for experience”, and stating that he “found the course new and tremendously stimulating”. Simultaneously, however, the 19 year old also disagreed with the core of Russell’s theory, arguing later that (Montagnini, 2017):
“I have always considered sense data as constructs, negative constructs, indeed, in a direction diametrically opposite to that of the Platonic ideas, but equally constructs that are far removed from unworked-on raw sense experience”
The other course, the same as that which had been attended by Wittgenstein, was a “reading course on the Principia Mathematica” (Montagnini, 2017). There were three students in the class, as there had been two years prior when Wittgenstein attended. Of this course too, Wiener later wrote approvingly that “His presentation of the Principia was delightfully clear; and our small class was able to get the most out of it”. Yet still, Wiener continued to feel like a failure to the great man, as he would reiterate in letters to his father Leo:
Excerpt, letter from Norbert to Leo Wiener (1913) My course-work under Mr. Russell is all right, but I am completely discouraged about the work I am doing under him privately. I guess I am a failure as a philosopher [...] I made a botch of my argument. Russell seems very dissatisfied [...] with my philosophical ability, and with me personally. He spoke of my views as "horrible fog", said that my exposition of them was even worse than the views themselves, and [...] accused me of too much self-confidence and cock-sureness [...] His language, though he excused himself, it is true, was most violent.
At some point, Russell’s impression of Wiener seems to have given way to respect and, eventually, admiration. Much in the same way as appears to have happened with Wittgenstein, the great man eventually came to see the boy genius from Missouri as a kindred spirit. Indeed, despite his expressed annoyance with the German youngster who had followed him around the college a few years prior, he had also written the following shortly after meeting Wittgenstein in 1912:
“Very good, much better than my English pupils do. I shall certainly encourage him. Perhaps he will do great things.”
Russell’s change of heart towards Wiener appears to have been the result, partly, the reading of his doctoral dissertation. In February 1914, Wiener wrote the following (Montagnini, 2017):
“I have shown my thesis to Mr. Russell, and he has read it. Before he read it, his attitute to me (as well as that of Mr. Hardy, whom I also met) seemed rather cold and indifferent, and they seemed inclined to doubt my mathematical ability, but after Mr. Russell had read my thesis, he warmed up considerably towards me. He praised my thesis, saying that it was a very good technical piece of work, and even went so far as to give me a copy of volume III of the Principia“
With the benefit of hindsight, it appears that Wiener could not have picked a better moment or a better thesis topic to show up with at Trinity College in 1913. Indeed, less than a year earlier, while working with Wittgenstein, Russell had confided to Lady Ottoline Morrell (Montagnini, 2017) that:
“It has been one of my dreams to found a great school of mathematically-minded philosophers, but I don’t know whether I shall ever get it accomplished. I had hopes of Norton, but he has not the physique. Broad is all right, but has no foundamental originality. Wittgenstein, of course, is exactly my dream“
Wittgenstein had however by 1913 disappeared to Norway with David Hume Pinsent, on a mission to find “a small village located on a fjord, a location away from tourists, and a peaceful destination to allow them to study logic and law” (Flowers, 2015). Wiener, thus, arrived at just the right time. As Norbert wrote R. B. Perry (1876-1957) in October:
“I have seen Mr. Russell several times. He agrees with Professor Huntington and Professor Schmidt in urging me to devote a large part of my time to mathematical studies, so that I ma going to take a course in ‘Cours' d’analyse’ under Mr. Hardy of Trinity.“
Wiener and Hardy
Ironically, the single most important take-away for Wiener from his work with Russell, was likely not related to philosophy. Rather, it was the great man’s suggestion that the young Wiener look up four 1905 papers by physicist Albert Einstein, which he would later make use of. This suggestion, combined with Russell’s encouragement that Wiener take G.H. Hardy (1877–1947)’s class indeed had a profound influence on his future career (Wiener, 1953):
“Hardy’s course […] was a revelation to me […] [in his] attention to rigor […] In all my years of listening to lectures in mathematics, I have never heard the equal of Hardy for clarity, for interest, or for intellectual power. If I am to claim any man as my master in my mathematical thinking, it must be G.H. Hardy.”
In particular, Wiener credited Hardy for introducing him to the Lebesgue integral which “lead directly to the main achievement of my early career”.
In his memoirs, Wiener would however still write the following to describe Russell:
“My chief teacher and mentor was Bertrand Russell, with whom I studied mathematical logic and a good many more general matters concerning the philosophy of science and mathematics”
Although not mentioned in Russell’s memoir, Wiener’s admiration indeed appears to have been mutual. In a review of Wiener’s 1919 article on measurement, Russell wrote to the editor at the London Mathematical Society, G. H. Hardy:
“This is a paper of very considerable importance, since it establishes a completely valid method for the numerical measurement of various kinds of quantity which have hitherto not been ameneble to measurement except by very faulty methods. […] His work displays abilities of high order, both technically and in general grasp of the problem; and I consider it in the highest degree desirable that it should be printed”.
Have a great week!
Conway, F. and Siegelman, J. (2005). Dark Hero of the Information Age: In Search of Norbert Wiener, The Father of Cybernetics*. Basic Books.
Flowers, F.A. (2015). Portraits of Wittgenstein: Volume I*. Bloomsbury Academic.
Grattan-Guinness, I. (1975). Wiener on the Logics of Russell and Schröder. An Account of his Doctoral Thesis, and of his Discussions of it with Russell. Annals of Science 32, pp. 103-132.
Heims, S.J. (1980). John von Neumann and Norbert Wiener: From Mathematics to the Technologies of Life and Death*. MIT Press.
Kanterian, E. (2007). Ludwig Wittgenstein*. Reaktion Books.
Monk, R. (1990). Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius*. Free Press.
Montagnini, L. (2017). Harmonies of Disorder*. Springer Publishing.
Nasar, S. (1998). A Beautiful Mind*. Simon & Schuster.
Wiener, N. (1953). Ex-Prodigy: My Childhood and Youth*. MIT Press.
* Amazon affiliate links
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Edited 03.22.21: Spelling, Gottlog = Gottleb. Alfred North Whitehead changed from “Ph.D. supervisor” to “academic advisor”. Russell’s title changed from ‘Sir’.