Bertrand Russell’s Grandmother: Anti-Metaphysician

In, The Autobiography of Bertrand Russell, 1872-1914,  Russell tells an amusing story about his grandmother, the Countess Russell (née Lady Frances Elliot), who was the dominant family figure for most of Russell’s childhood and youth.[69][73] As an adolescent Russell had adopted utilitarianism, much to his grandmother’s dismay. In response she ridiculed him, and proceeded to pose ethical conundrums that she believed the young Russell couldn’t resolve using utilitarian principles.

But here disagreeableness didn’t stop there. Here is how Russell describes her antipathy to his philosophical interests: “When she discovered that I was interested in metaphysics, she told me that the whole subject could be summed up in the saying: ‘What is mind? no matter; what is matter? never mind.’ At the fifteenth or sixteenth repetition of this remark, it ceased to amuse me, but my grandmother’s animus against metaphysics continued to the end of her life.” Here is a poem the Countess penned to express those feelings:

O Science metaphysical,
And very very quizzical,
You only make this maze of life the mazier;
For boasting to illuminate
Such riddles dark as Will and Fate
You muddle them to hazier and hazier.

The cause of every action,
You expound with satisfaction;
Through the mind in all its corners and recesses
You say that you have travelled,
And all problems unravelled
And axioms you call your learned guesses.

Right and wrong you’ve so dissected,
And their fragments so connected,
That which we follow doesn’t seem to matter;
But the cobwebs you have wrought
And the silly flies they have caught,
It needs no broom miraculous to shatter.

You know no more than I,
What is laughter, tear, or sigh,
Or love, or hate, or anger, or compassion;
Metaphysics, then, adieu,
Without you I can do,
And I think you’ll very soon be out of fashion.

Russell subsequently states that some years later his grandmother said to him, ” ‘I hear you are writing another book,’ in the tone of voice in which one might say: ‘I hear you are having another illegitimate child.’ ”

As for me, I can’t imagine discussing utilitarianism or metaphysics with my grandmothers. Yet it doesn’t sound like discussing anything with Russell’s grandmother was much fun.

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The Autobiography of Bertrand Russell, 1872-1914 (London, Allen & Unwin: 1967), 56-7.

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