The Routledge Companion to Nineteenth Century Philosophy

By Dean Moyar | Go to book overview

22
BRITISH IDEALISM:
THEORETICAL
PHILOSOPHY

Stewart Candlish


Introduction

The last great English-language philosophical work of the nineteenth century was Bertrand Russell’s The Principles of Mathematics, whose first draft was completed on that century’s last day, 31st December 1900. Earlier the same year, he had published A Critical Exposition of the Philosophy of Leibniz. Both books exhibit an uncompromising rejection of British Idealism, to a form of which he had previously adhered (see e.g. Russell 1897). This break, partly because of Russell’s own eventual influence, marked the start of the decline of Absolute Idealism in Britain. (In this chapter, all unqualified references to idealism should be understood as references to Absolute Idealism as exemplified in Britain.) We shall see that, to grasp the dialectic of the debate between idealists and the critics who were responsible for their eclipse, it is just as important to understand Russell’s conception of what he was breaking with, as it is to understand idealism itself.

The causes of the break are complex; we shall consider them in more detail later. But a crucial element in them is the question of the truth of mathematics. As Russell conceived idealism, its adherents denied the absolute and unqualified truth of any statement, whether it be one of, for example, common discourse, of science, or of mathematics, no matter how carefully phrased, how conscientiously established, or how simple, these may be.

For various reasons, Russell came to hold that mathematical statements are simply and absolutely true: not just partly true; not merely temporarily true as one moment of a dialectical transition; not just true as part of a wider whole; not merely empirically true while being transcendentally false; not just relatively or conditionally true. This view of the status of mathematics, Russell thought, requires a certain kind of metaphysics, whose components can look as if they have been formulated by denying their idealist counterparts. This metaphysics is marked by a lack of epistemic restrictions: the mind has direct and unmediated contact with many separate propositions

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