A Brave [Ahem] Attempt to Define the Term ‘Bertrand Russell’ [Oh Dear]
by David Kennedy Bird
Abstract: Before there was Bertrand Russell, there was the concept “Bertrand Russell.” Or, wait, did i get that right? Did the actual dude “Bertrand Russell” come before the concept of Bertrand Russell? It’s so hard to keep this stuff sorted out! Anyway, the narrative you are about to read concerns a group of philosophers gathered ’round a table at Chili’s restaurant. Bertrand Russell happens to be one of ’em. But listening in on the conversation, you’d never know it! Heh heh heh.
St. Thomas Aquinas: I greet you cordially, gentlemen. As i believe you all know, we are gathered here to discuss the essence and existence of one Lord Bertrand Russell.
Bertrand Russell: Greetings, fond fellows! It’s an honor to find myself among such distinguished company.
Albert Camus: [mumbling] I’m not certain i understand what’s so great about him, but whatever.
Ludwig Wittgenstein: If only Bertrand Russell were here.
Aquinas: Oh, and if only the moon were made of green cheese! Look, you can’t always have everything you want.
Bertrand Russell: But i am! Helloo! You’re such a card. I’m right here. Next to you!
Aquinas: So. Perhaps we might begin by attempting a definition of ‘Bertrand Russell’ and establishing that definition as having ontological authority.
Wittgenstein: That odd relationship between the words we speak regarding Bertrand Russell, and his concrete reality among other concrete realities, interests me immensely.
Bertrand Russell: I’m right here, idiot.
Aquinas: So here’s the agenda for this discussion. We’re going to establish the ontological basis for belief in the existence of Bertrand Russell, discuss the relationship between the term ‘Bertrand Russell’ and the actual dude, and explore the possibilities regarding his existence, nature, proclivities, and patterns of usage–in terms of lanes and spaces–when he finds himself in a parking lot.
Wittgenstein: Could you lay all of that out for us in outline or grid form?
Aquinas: I’m way ahead of you. Check this out:
Does Bertrand Russell exist?
In what manner does he exist?
Is it possible to define him?
What sort of being is he?
Is defining Bertrand Russell the same thing as defining the term ‘Bertrand Russell’?
Wittgenstein: Dude, you are so cool. I’m seriously lovin’ this. I’m actually feeling just a little bit aroused right now.
Aquinas: I shall interpret that as high praise, and not as an expression of a perverse, or at any rate non-normative, er, sexual…
Bertrand Russell: Look here, the joke’s over. I’m sitting right here. I can answer all of your questions regarding my ontological status.
Aquinas: So, to begin: the ontological status of Lord Bertrand Russell. Is he, or is he not, an actually existent entity?
Wittgenstein: Of course, we’re using ordinary language to attempt to establish metaphysical realities. That’s maybe a problem right there.
Bertrand Russell: I am here, right here, you mealy sop!
Camus: I’m far from convinced that this discussion is of any importance whatsoever.
Wittgenstein: Yes, that IS what you would say, isn’t it. [to Aquinas] Give this man a range of options, and he will always opt to spotlight his own importance.
Camus: I’m of no importance. Meaning is all-important. And can only be realized through meaningful action.
Wittgenstein: Tra la la, tra la la, tra la la.
Aquinas: Gentlemen! Back to the topic. I believe that sufficient evidence exists, of a documentary nature, to support the thesis that Bertrand Russell is ‘real’.
Bertrand Russell: Ass! I’m practically sitting in your lap.
Wittgenstein: Regarding Bertrand Russell, perhaps we might say that he is “all that is the case in the case of Bertrand Russell.”
Wittgenstein: I’m just sorta spitballing, here.
Bertrand Russell: [muttering to himself] Quelle nightmare.
Aquinas: I’m having trouble tracking with you, Ludwig. Did you just spout a puffball of utter nonsense?
Wittgenstein: Well, no. I attempted to formulate a definition of Bertrand Russell that would be both ontologically AND linguistically satisfying.
Camus: [rolls his eyes]
Bertrand Russell: I totally am right here next to you.
Aquinas: I’m going to pretend this discussion is only just beginning, and no one has yet had the chance to articulate what strikes me as the utterest nonsense imaginable.
Bertrand Russell: What is WRONG with you people? I am literally RIGHT HERE.
Aquinas: So, why don’t we address the question, “In what manner does Bertrand Russell exist?”
Bertrand Russell: Hello, hello! I know this one.
Wittgenstein: He exists in a manner that can be thought, but not spoken of.
Aquinas: You and your “thought, but not spoken of” nonsense. Get it together, Ludwig. We’re having a philosophical discussion, not a mystical communion.
Wittgenstein: Um, ouch.
Bertrand Russell: Look, i can answer that.
Camus: It seems to me that if Russell is able to act authentically, then he is permitted to claim for himself existence.
Aquinas: Yikes, i’d almost rather go with Wittgenstein’s answer. Hoo boy. Who was it that decided to accord existentialism the status of a valid philosophical system, that’s MY question.
Camus: Yeah? Well, maybe YOUR MOM has the answer to that particular question.
Wittgenstein: It’s good to experience philosophical debate at its most primal. Where’s Karl Popper when you’re wanting him? [looking about the room for a fireplace poker]
Bertrand Russell: Oh, come on! “In what manner does Bertrand Russell exist?” That’s an easy one. I’ve got this.
Aquinas: Perhaps we should move on to the next question, “Is it possible to define him?”
Camus: How is that not the same question as “What sort of being is he?”
Aquinas: Well, if it’s not possible to define him, then we cannot say what sort of being he is.
Camus: So they’re basically just two parts of the same question.
Aquinas: I am developing a downright Aristotelian dislike for you.
Camus: That did not EVEN.
Wittgenstein: I can’t help thinking that neither of you has a point to make that “is the case.”
Camus: Oh, go fondle yourself.
Bertrand Russell: Ho! Woo-hoo! Look: I’ve got the answer to that one. I am a human person, the definition of which is consistent with the definition of humanity in general–if you want to get into all that.
Wittgenstein: Look, what if we move on to the last of our five questions, which to my way of thinking seems the most interesting anyway. Is defining Bertrand Russell the same thing as defining the term “Bertrand Russell”?
Camus: Of course not. Bertrand Russell defines himself through the series of choices he makes in a world of ambiguities. The term “Bertrand Russell”, on the other hand, is merely that: a term.
Aquinas: And you, Camus, consistently choose to define yourself as an idiot.
Camus: Maybe it’s your Mom who’s the real idiot.
Wittgenstein: I’m thinking the terminological problem is intertwined with the problem of Russell’s identity so intimately that the two questions cannot be separated.
Aquinas: Blah, blah, blah. Blah, blah, blah.
Bertrand Russell: Imbecile! I am totally sticking my fork into your Southwestern Eggroll. Hmm? You like that?
Aquinas: Interesting. My Southwestern Eggroll seems to be moving about of its own volition. I feel moved to revise my understanding of locomotion, causality, objectivity and the self. There are apparently things that Aristotle hardly dreamed of.
Camus: [muttering] Your Mom is Aristotle.
Bertrand Russell: I am about to start poking all of you in the ribs with my fork.
Wittgenstein: How can his Mom be Aristotle? Was your speech-act an attempt to characterize some aspect of the real world? Or an expression of the sublime and irrational?
Bertrand Russell: Idiot. Here i am. I am literally poking my fork into your freaking spleen. There is literally blood coming out! You can’t feel that? Hmm? What about this? [pokes his fork into Camus’s liver]
Camus: Ow. It feels as if someone is poking his fork into my spleen. And also, perhaps my liver.
Aquinas: I’ve about had it up to here with your attention-grabbing egocentricity, Al!
Bertrand Russell: This is actually almost as enjoyable as getting to participate in a philosophical discussion. Here, i’m going for Aquinas now.
Aquinas: Hey! What was that?
Camus: What was what?
Aquinas: One of you $!%*&#^@&$% s just poked me in the ribs!
Camus: Hey there, watch the blasphemy, Tom! Isn’t that one of the Seven Deadly Sins?
Aquinas: Actually, no, it’s not, although it might cogently be argued that it–
Bertrand Russell: [a giant poke]
Aquinas: Ow! Who’s doing that?
Bertrand Russell: Okay. I have to confess i’m actually considering giving up philosophy to become a practical jokester. Did anybody hear me say that? Of course not. This is the greatest! I’m here, but i’m not here! I’m an ontological impossibility!
Wittgenstein: I’m still trying to figure out how Aquinas’s Mom can be Aristotle. Is there a variant sense in which you are using the terms?
The Dessert Course
In which B.R. exults in his newfound freedom, and continues joyously poking his tableware into the torsos and limbs of all present–much to his own entertainment and the growing consternation of the assembled company.