In this show’s first episode, David Krakauer explained how art and science live along an axis of explanatory depth: science strives to find the simplest adequate abstractions to explain the world we observe, where art’s devotion is to the incompressible — the one-offs that resist abstraction and attempts to write a unifying framework. Between the random and the regular, amidst the ligaments that bind our scientific and artistic inquiries, we find a huge swath of the world that we struggle to articulate in formal quantitative terms, but that rewards our curiosity and offers us profound insights regardless. Here lives the open question of what we can learn from history — specifically, the histories of other people’s lives. Why do we love biographies? What can the stories of the lives of others teach us about both situational and common truths of being? This is a different kind of episode and conversation, one living at the intersection of philosophy and history and science…
This week’s episode features guest interviewer, SFI President David Krakauer, in conversation with philosopher and biographer Ray Monk. Monk teaches at the University of Southhampton and was SFI’s 2017 Miller Scholar, a position that he earned for his biographies of Ludwig Wittgenstein, Bertrand Russell, and J. Robert Oppenheimer — three mavericks whose legacies are lessons for contemporary leaders.
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David: Today, I'm speaking with Ray Monk on the surprising topic of leadership through a life of philosophy, mathematics, and physics. We're going to tackle how very deep and surprising ideas that are not associated with business life or the economy can still change lives and societies.
Ray Monk is a British philosopher. His interests are in the philosophy of mathematics, the history of analytical philosophy and philosophical aspects of biographical writing. He's professor of philosophy at the University of Southampton, and he's also a Miller Scholar and colleague here at Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico.
In 2015, he was awarded a fellowship by the Royal Society of Literature, and Ray is here to talk about the biographies of three extraordinary individuals about whom he has written: Ludwig Wittgenstein, Bertrand Russell and Robert Oppenheimer. Each of these individuals is associated with an incredible book. Wittgenstein, The Duty of Genius was published in 1991. Bertrand Russell biography came out in two volumes: The Spirit of Solitude in 1996 and The Ghost of Madness in 2001. His biography of Robert Oppenheimer Inside the Center: The Life of J. Robert Oppenheimer came out in 2012. All of these people were born into privilege of one kind or another. They were all uncompromising. The were all driven. They were difficult to be around but capable of being charming at times and all incredibly consequential. Ray, perhaps start just by telling us a little bit about the three people and perhaps what drew you to them in the first place.
Ray Monk: All right. Wittgenstein was born towards the end of the 19th century into a very wealthy family. His father was in the iron and steel industry but he himself went into philosophy, went to Cambridge, studied with Bertrand Russell, and then wrote a book called Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, which attempted to solve all the problems of philosophy in one go. He thought he had done that. He gave up philosophy, became a school teacher, then became convinced he hadn't after all solved all the problems of philosophy, went back to Cambridge and developed a completely new approach to philosophical problems which is embodied in his second book which was published posthumously in 1953. He died in 1951. The book is called Philosophical Investigations and is regarded by many philosophers as the most important work of philosophy ever published.
Bertrand Russell was born into an aristocratic British family. His grandfather was Queen Victoria's prime minister, Lord John Russell. He eventually inherited the earldom of Lord John Russell. He went to Cambridge to study mathematics but then got interested in philosophy and particular in the project of using philosophy to provide a foundation for mathematics. He published his first attempt of that in 1903 Principles of Mathematics, which laid out the philosophy of this. He then attempted to do it mathematically as it were theorem by theorem in the massive three volume book that was published in 1913 called Principia Mathematica which he co-wrote with his math tutor at Cambridge, Alfred North Whitehead. He then abandoned philosophy in favor of political activism.
The First World War of course broke out in 1914. He considered it to be a big mistake and abandoned philosophy in favor of going up and down the country arguing for peace and arguing against the war, and he was judged to have threatened relations with the United States when he published a lecture in which he opposed United States entry into the war. For that, he was imprisoned in 1918 and that experience, it wasn't particularly unpleasant. Bertrand Russell said, "The experience of being imprisoned is much like being on a cruise ship." It did strengthen his resolve and for the rest of his life he dedicated himself to trying to improve the world, as it were, trying to use the techniques that had informed his philosophical writing to present a clearheaded modern view of life in the world which he did throughout the '20s and the '30s.
Up until the end of his life in the '60s he was always engaged in attempts to improve society and attempts to prevent war. He did this in the 1930s. He did it again in the 1950s. He was a founding member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, and then the much more radical Committee of 100, and the even more radical Bertrand Russell Foundation. Eventually he died in 1970 and his legacy is really he hoped the Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation but more generally a view of the world that abandons religion in favor of an attempted scientific outlook that would seek to replace discord with peace.
Oppenheimer was born into a very wealthy family. His father was a tailor, made a lot of money in the clothing industry. Oppenheimer himself was born in 1904 in New York City, Riverside Drive overlooking the River Hudson in a fabulously opulent apartment. He was educated at what was essentially a Jewish school, the Ethical Culture School. His father was very involved in the Ethical Culture movement and that informed Oppenheimer's life. One of the themes of Oppenheimer's life is his attempt to be a good citizen for the United States of America and that ethic he got from the Ethical Culture School.
He went to Harvard. He became very interested in chemistry. He went to Harvard and, after a year, he became convinced that the real interesting scientific problems were not in chemistry but in physics, and he abandoned chemistry for physics and remarkably started taking graduate level physics courses when he was just a second year undergraduate student. He then wanted to be at the center. My book is called Inside the Center. He always wanted to be at the center of intellectual life and political life which he thought was in Cambridge, England with Ernest Rutherford.
He went to Cambridge at the time when quantum mechanics was beginning to be formulated mostly in Germany, and so accordingly he relocated to Germany and was an early contributor to the very exciting developments in quantum mechanics in the 1920s which meant that he was in great demand in America, and he more or less chose his own job, and the job that he chose was a two-part appointment where he was, first of all, at the University of California, Berkeley where he, as it were, created a physics department in his own image and then at Caltech in Pasadena. He divided his year. He would spend six months in Northern California and then migrate to Southern California. He became so charismatic that every time he migrated down south to Pasadena, he took his graduate students with him and they all followed him to Pasadena in order to, so to speak, sit at his feet.
The most remarkable thing about Oppenheimer though is that after America entered the Second World War and after Roosevelt was convinced by Einstein and others to pursue the project of using nuclear fission to make a nuclear bomb, Oppenheimer was chosen to be the man in charge of the laboratory in Los Alamos here in New Mexico. The remarkable thing about that, he said he was the last the person that should have been chosen to do this. He wasn't an experimental physicist. He was notoriously a disaster in the laboratory. He never led a laboratory or anything else. On top of all that, he was held to be politically suspect by one of the most important people in America, J. Edgar Hoover, who thought that Oppenheimer was probably a Soviet spy. Despite all that, General Groves insisted on having Oppenheimer in charge of the project which turned out to be exactly the right decision. Oppenheimer led the project to a successful conclusion in a remarkably short space of time. By the end of the war, he had replaced Einstein as the most famous physicist in the United States of America.
Then because of his past, so to speak, caught up with him and he alienated very important people in the military and in politics in Washington who conspired against him which led in 1954 at the height of the McCarthyite paranoia about communism to a security hearing which accused Oppenheimer of being a Soviet spy. That accusation wasn't upheld but he did have his security clearance taken away from him, and he was temporarily held in disgrace although in the meantime he'd been appointed director of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton and he kept that up and, within a fairly short space of time, rehabilitated himself as a famous scientist and went around the country giving talks to audiences of thousands of people.
David: You've given us the introduction to three extraordinary people. Today, we're discussing leadership in a very unorthodox way. One thing that I'd like to ask you is firstly about biography itself. Many people I know read books on business, and they read books on leadership, and they read books on organizations, and they also read biographies. They read about Madison, and Jefferson, and Lincoln, and Churchill, so there is something that we all feel can be learned by reading about the specifics of someone's life. I would like you to just give us an insight from a philosophical perspective about what you think a biography is doing that a study of their work could not accomplish.
Ray Monk: Yeah. Good. I think, first and foremost, a biography is an attempt to understand a person. Now, the particular people that I have written about have all been intellectuals, two philosophers and a physicist. I think in all three cases understanding the person can be a way into understanding their work. It's not a necessary way into it. I mean, I wouldn't claim that you had to understand Oppenheimer's life in order to understand his physics, but I would say that it's one way into it, and it's not as if the interest of the biography is exhausted by being a way into understanding their work.
Understanding an interesting person is a worthwhile activity in itself. One needn't regard biography as such a handmaiden for something else, for philosophy or for physics. We want to understand the people around us. We want to understand ourselves, and I think really at the bottom the interest in biography is tied to that general obligation we all feel to understand ourselves and the people around us. I think it's a facet of particularly gifted or interesting individuals that understanding them helps, so to speak, to understand humanity and, therefore, ourselves.
David: Right. These three individuals, and you alluded to this earlier, in addition to leading just intrinsically fascinating, conflicted, productive lives, found themselves as leaders either of movements, of styles of thinking, of organizations with huge political consequences which seemed at odds with their characteristics in their early youth.
Ray Monk: I think the most obvious leader is actually Russell. Russell was born to be a leader. His grandfather was prime minister of Great Britain. He had descendants who are actively involved in British politics at a cabinet level or near a cabinet level going back to Tudor times, and he was privately educated by his grandparents. His parents died when he was young. He was brought up by his grandparents. He's brought up in his grandfather's house, and so he knew personally all the people at the top of British politics. They didn't send him to a school because they wanted to, as we would now say, hothouse him, and so he had a succession of private tutors who were all given the job, so to speak, of training the young Bertie to be the next prime minister. I don't think Russell ever quite shook that upbringing. That it was his right almost to play a leading part in British politics and world politics.
A journalist who went to interview him in the '50s said that Russell greeted him by saying, "I'm very displeased with India at the moment," as if he personally had a foreign policy. He was born into leadership. Now, he became against the grain, interested in intellectual matters, and there are very few intellectual areas of expertise as rarefied as the philosophy of mathematics, and that's what Russell became interested in, but that was him going against the grain. When he then assumed a leading role in the anti-war movement in the First World War, that was him, so to speak, reverting to type in a way.
David: Did they all go against the grain?
Ray Monk: Oppenheimer again was brought up to be a good citizen, not necessarily a leader but in any case somebody who, as it were ... It was an expectation from his family and from the Ethical Culture movement and I think also from Harvard. It was an expectation that he, as the product of this very privilege background, should play a role in making society better and making the United States of America better. Now, as it turned out, he, like Russell, became very interested in a rarefied area of intellectual activity. In his case, quantum mechanics. But then again, like Russell, wanted to be involved. In the 1930s, he got involved in politics seeing what was happening in Spain, seeing what was happening in Germany and also seeing the effects of the crash of 1929 and seeing the effects of the crash in the United States were affecting in a very unequal kind of way the poorest members of the society and wanting to do something about that. That's what drove him into left-wing politics.
And, then when fission was discovered, he's excited about using fission to make a bomb. The excitement of that was not primarily scientific or technological. It was political. He figured that if Nazi Germany who after all still had Heisenberg, one of the leading physicist in the world. Oppenheimer reasoned we have to get an atomic bomb before Nazi Germany does. That imperative was a moral imperative. It was a political imperative and he figured he was the man for the job and that's where leadership comes into it. That he wanted to assume a leading role and he took his opportunity. He wasn't even considered. When Groves took over control of the Manhattan Project, Oppenheimer wasn't even considered as one of the contenders to be the head of the project. But, when Groves went to California to meet Ernest Lawrence, Oppenheimer happened to be there. He immediately seized his opportunity to discuss the urgency of this with Groves, and so impressed was Groves that Groves made Oppenheimer leader. Yes, his leadership came through in his determination to influence events.
David: Wittgenstein, the least likely leader of the three and yet he has had an extraordinary influence on you and on many philosophers so a different kind of leader. What about him?
Ray Monk: Yeah, a very different kind of leader. I think if one wants a model here of leadership, one should think of St. Benedict. In all kinds of ways, there are parallels between St. Benedict and Wittgenstein. The age in which they grew up. St. Benedict was born in Italy immediately after the collapse of the Roman Empire. He could see that collapse all around him. He could see the Goths destroying some of the great Roman cities. He lived at a time of chaos and destruction. St. Benedict's reaction to that was, so to speak, to turn away from the world to live in his famous cave and to try and improve himself. So dedicated was he to that that he drew followers to him and then, in the dark years of the post-empire period, it was St. Benedict's rule that kept Christianity alive.
Well, now think of Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein was present at the collapse of the empire in which he grew up, the Austro-Hungarian Empire. His instinct, too, was to renounce, to turn away. He once said to a friend of his ... A friend of his said, "How can I make the world a better place?" Wittgenstein said, "The only way you can make the world a better place is to make yourself a better person." This I think is the Benedictine approach, the same kind of impulse. Now, with regard to leadership, it's a bit like with St. Benedict, too, that Wittgenstein didn't set out to create a school of thought. He didn't set out to lead people but people were drawn to him. They were drawn to him by the fierce integrity that he showed intellectually and personally and so he, so to speak, led by example. Like St. Benedict, he became a leader despite himself just by providing to other people a model of how to think and how to live.
David: That's one thing that's really intriguing about all three. I mean, if you look at their work, Russell's early work, famous paper On Denoting. You look at the Tractatus. You look at Oppenheimer's paper on the quantum theory of molecules. There's nothing obvious in those titles that would suggest the role that they would assume later. But, in your work, it's interesting. I think you are drawn to people who somehow combine the very rigorous analytical with this much more expansive policy orientation. I'm just curious what is that magic combination of characteristics?
Ray Monk: Yeah, it is interesting, isn't it? The one who was most self-aware of that I think is Bertrand Russell. He once said to somebody, "Look, if you want to be well-respected, if you want to have your views on politics or anything else respected and taken note of, write a completely unintelligible book." He said, "Then you establish yourself as having a prime intellect." Because people look at Principia Mathematica, they think, "Gosh. I don't understand this but what a mind to have produced this." Then Russell felt, well, that gives him license, so to speak, to pronounce on Nazi Germany, or the First World War, or American foreign policy. Sorry, did you...
David: No, that's really interesting. It suggest it's something to do with respect, and trust, and legitimacy even though the legitimacy comes from outside of the domain of practice.
Ray Monk: Exactly, exactly.
David: That's enough to convince other people they're worth listening to.
Ray Monk: Exactly. Einstein is another example of this. I haven't written a biography of Einstein, but people used to write to Einstein asking him how they should vote because they figured, "Well, if he's clever enough to come up with the theory of relativity, surely he's clever enough to tell us which is the best presidential candidate to vote for." I think that idea is also present in the leadership aspects of the lives of Russell, Wittgenstein and Oppenheimer. All three acquired a reputation for rigorous analytic thought which then in very different ways but for all three of them then cashed out into, well, now tell us how to live.
David: I think it's such an important insight because even if you look at the life of Churchill, Churchill was a historian. Churchill was a writer. That's how he made his money and then you look at more contemporary leaders like Steve Jobs who was fascinated in aesthetics and design. It's intriguing when discussing leadership, the humanistic dimension to accomplishment is almost completely neglected in favor of what look likes a recipe book for how to be effective as opposed to depth first which can then be drawn on.
Ray Monk: Yes, that is an interesting aspect of all three of these people that to some extent they had leadership thrust upon them because of the obvious manifest intelligence that they had displayed.
David: Let's talk about their characters a little because none of them were easy and that's often the case. I'm curious what were the impressions of those around them? Reading your books where I get most of my insights into three of them, they come across as difficult and rather selfish but oddly stoical at times in strange ways. I'm just curious. Was this necessary for their success or is this something they could have avoided if they had just worked a little harder to be a little bit more emphatic?
Ray Monk: Yes. It's a question of what's involved in having charisma, I think. I mean, you don't gain charisma by being likable and adaptable. One approach through life and through getting on with the people around one is to want to be liked, to please other people and so on. It's a feature all three of these people. They very definitely didn't do that. They didn't make their choices. They didn't say what they said, write what they write, do what they did in order to make people like them. That wasn't the point.
Now, interestingly, you have to, to some extent, you have to affect other people. You have to inspire devotion in other people and all three of them did it in different ways. Oppenheimer is an interesting example here. When one thinks why was Oppenheimer such a good leader of the Manhattan Project? Well, one thing. He had a very quick intelligence and that was very important because he could go to somebody working on the chemistry of plutonium. He could go to somebody working on fission reactions, people working on the physical design of the bomb or somebody planning laundry facilities for the town of Los Alamos.
What all the people ... A lot of the people who worked at Los Alamos had published their memoirs. One recurring theme is that Oppenheimer listened to what they were saying and could understand it very quickly no matter what it was through a wide range of all things. Oppenheimer wasn't a person pleaser in a kind of way but he was a good listener and that was a crucial part of his success, a good listener and somebody who would want to understand other people as opposed, say, to Edward Teller. Edward Teller, great scientist but a flawed individual, and you can't imagine Edward Teller leading the Los Alamos Laboratory because he wouldn't inspire the kind of devotion. He wouldn't inspire the kind of cohesion that Oppenheimer inspired because of his ability to listen and because of his very quick and multifaceted intelligence.
Now, Russell is different again because you said that all three of them were difficult and that's true, but with Russell it's an interesting pattern in his difficultness which is this. He was more difficult the closer you were to him. He had four wives. He had three children, grandchildren and so on. The people close to him remember him as being prickly, vain, difficult, but he could go into a room of people and charm them all. He had immense charm. He was very funny. He was very witty. When he led a campaign as he did in the First World War and again in the '50s, the anti-nuclear campaign and the anti-Vietnam War campaign in the '60s, a large part of his leadership was his ability to charm other people.
Now, take Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein was brought up with impeccable manners. People who knew the young Wittgenstein comment on what extraordinary manners he had. He was extraordinary courtly person. He would put other people first and he had grace. He had social grace but he made a conscious effort to overcome that so the person remembered in the adult Wittgenstein that's remembered as being difficult, headstrong, argumentative was not his natural personality or the one that he grew up with. It's one that he took great pains to acquire.
David: It's very interesting. It's almost as if in your books in their totality you're arriving at a theory of charismatic leadership with very unique elements of rigor and rebellion. But, anyway, one thing I did want to point out as you described in your books is this cost them personally a huge amount. Both Russell was expelled from Trinity for his views on the war. Oppenheimer, of course, you mentioned Teller testified against him, was expelled in the '50s for his opposition to the hydrogen bomb. The elements of personality did actually cost them in very real terms.
Ray Monk: Yes. I think it is a part of their leadership qualities because, on the one hand, having the courage of one's convictions as Russell, Oppenheimer and Wittgenstein all had, attracts people to you, and so you're in a position to be a leader, to play that role. But, the other side of that very coin is that you can appear to be obstinate. Oppenheimer is not going to tell the president and the various committees that he sat on what he knows they want to hear, what he knows that they want to hear that, yes, you should go ahead with an accelerated program to produce the hydrogen bomb. He himself is convinced that that would be a calamity, and so he expresses that view knowing full well it's going to annoy the president, the head of the air force, the head of the army, the head of the navy and so on.
Yes. You say it's their downfall. What, in Oppenheimer's case, was his downfall was his refusal to tell people what they want to hear. I suppose Wittgenstein, it's not like Oppenheimer and Russell because Wittgenstein didn't lead a public life. He held no public position. He led no public campaign and so the state was indifferent to him. People have sometimes said ... Wittgenstein was gay of course. People have sometimes said with regard to comparing Turing, Alan Turing and Wittgenstein, "Why was Alan Turing persecuted for his homosexuality in a way that Wittgenstein wasn't?" The answer to that of course is that Wittgenstein wasn't vulnerable to that kind of persecution because he wasn't, unlike Turing, a public figure.
Wittgenstein wasn't a public figure but is there an element of suffering? Is there a sense in which he suffered for the qualities that made him a leader? I would say yes in a very different way in something like the way that the saints, the Christian saints, suffered. That is to say it's a self-imposed suffering like St. Francis not owning anything. Wittgenstein, too, inherited a vast amount of money, gave it away, lived very simply and to some extent that was a cost. The fact that it was a cost that he was happy to pay but nevertheless I don't think many people would want to live a spartan a life as Wittgenstein lived.
David: I want to ask you a little bit about guidance and mentorship. I'm curious to see what you say to this. In a sense, Russell was Wittgenstein's mentor and I was looking for who Russell's and Oppenheimer's were. The only names I could come up with were, in Russell's case, Alfred North Whitehead and, for Oppenheimer, Max Born in Göttingen. I'm just curious who were their heroes? Who were the individuals who impressed their ideas and identities on these three?
Ray Monk: Let's take Bertrand Russell. In terms of philosophy, I'd say... In terms of history, not people he met personally, but historically the figure he looked to... Well, two figures, Spinoza and Locke. He always carried around portraits of Spinoza and Locke. Whenever he moved, one of the first things he would do is put up his portraits of Spinoza and Locke above his mantelpiece. Spinoza, of course, is persecuted for what was perceived to be his atheism in Amsterdam. Locke, I think figures for Russell as the embodiment of commonsense, as the embodiment of the kind of man he wanted to be, the kind of philosopher he wanted to be.
Now, in terms of living people, William James was a big inspiration for Russell as well as F. H. Bradley, the Oxford philosopher. I think the man he admired above all others is actually Joseph Conrad. He worshiped Joseph Conrad. He gave the name Conrad to both his sons. His first son was John Conrad Russell. His second was Conrad Russell. Why? Because Joseph Conrad was a great writer and a great writer of the kind that Russell wanted to be. He went through a very brief infatuation with D. H. Lawrence because he saw or he thought he saw in D. H. Lawrence the ability to look straight into people. He came to the conclusion that he's wrong about that and that Lawrence actually couldn't look straight into people. He was just nuts. Joseph Conrad he continued to believe could see straight into people and that that's what enabled him to write the Heart of Darkness, and Lord Jim, and all these books that Russell had a very deep admiration for.
I think it's to do with understanding people and having the gift to express that understanding in wonderful prose. Russell himself thought... This is one thing they all have in common actually. It's not directly tied to leadership but they all paid great attention to the way they wrote. They were all great stylists. Oppenheimer would write out his public lectures and they're marvelous prose. Russell was one of the great prose stylist since the 20th century, I think. When you look at Wittgenstein's manuscripts, he wrote and rewrote and rewrote again trying to get his thoughts into as distilled form as possible. Wittgenstein's model for this was the aphorist Lichtenberg. He said, "I summed up my attitude of philosophy," he said, "when I said that philosophy ought to be written as if it were poetry."
Mentors, in Russell's case, Joseph Conrad. Oppenheimer, yes, Max Born. But, I think more deeply than Max Born, Niels Bohr. Niels Bohr was to Oppenheimer what Joseph Conrad was to Russell, the man he admired above all others. He admired Bohr's intelligence obviously but also his quiet determination to get to the heart of things and also a capacity of Bohr's thought that many people have commented on which is more or less absent in Oppenheimer's, but Oppenheimer had a great admiration for it which was his imagination. Bohr notoriously didn't just look at the formulas. He didn't just apply mathematics. He thought pictorially and this was crucial. Many of the breakthroughs that Niels Bohr made, it was that determination to imagine what's going on. In the case of fission, he imagined the nucleus as like a balloon full of water splodging about, being unstable, wanting at any moment to separate itself. Then the bigger the nucleus, the more like a balloon it is and the more likely it is to pull itself apart. That image was crucial in Bohr's understanding of fission.
Then, of course, Bohr was a mentor to Oppenheimer in a different way. That is politically. Bohr came to Los Alamos, didn't contribute to the science, didn't contribute to the technology but did get Oppenheimer to think about what he was doing morally and politically. Bohr said, "On the one hand, this could be the most terrible thing mankind has ever done. On the other hand," Bohr said, "it could be the best thing mankind has ever done because it could produce a weapon so fearful, so powerful that it could put an end to war itself." When Oppenheimer chose to concentrate on politics after the Second World War, it was in that spirit that he went to Washington, in the spirit of Niels Bohr trying to put, as it were, to good use the fearful thing that they had created at Los Alamos.
David: Now, in terms of the medium of their influence, Russell was prolific. Many books and he made a lot of money on the book that I first read of his which is The History of Western Philosophy which he probably retired on. Oppenheimer also wrote books, gave lectures and turned those lectures into books. Wittgenstein wrote one and then posthumously a second was published. I'm curious about their conception of their audience and how they would reach them.
Ray Monk: Good question. All right. Let's deal with Wittgenstein first. Wittgenstein wrote about his intended audience and what's clear is that his intended audience were not academic philosophers. He once wrote, "May my work be quickly forgotten by the philosophical journalists, the people who publish in philosophical journals." He had an idea of his audience and he wrote in the preface to the Tractatus and in the preface of the Investigations of who he imagined his audience to be. He said he was addressing himself to people who thought through the same problems and this could be anyone. It needn't be a professor of philosophy. It needn't be a student of philosophy. It could be anyone in any walk of life but what was required for Wittgenstein was that they, like Wittgenstein, were consumed with the philosophical questions about logic and language that drove his great work. He did have a conception but it wasn't of a particular profession. It wasn't of a particular type. It was a collection of individuals. He was writing for those individuals who were intellectually and spiritually his kindred spirits.
Now, Oppenheimer of course had many different audiences. When he wrote his scientific papers in the '20s, he was writing for rather small collection of people who could understand what he was writing and consciously writing for those and, like academics today, he would send off prints to the people he wanted to read his work and to be influenced by his work. Then in the '30s and '40s, his audience not so much for what he published but personally, '30s, '40s and '50s. He sought to have a personal influence on the people governing the United States of America through discussion, through conversation and through leadership of the Los Alamos Laboratory.
Now, Russell again had an idea of his audience. He said that his audience for Principia Mathematica turned out to be three people all of whom lived in Texas, he said. He said he only over met three people who had read all three volumes of Principia Mathematica, and they all lived in Texas. Self-consciously his audience for that book was tiny. He wasn't unambitious about it though because he reasoned like this. Look, Kant's Critique of Pure Reason wasn't a bestseller. It was written for a tiny audience and, yet, its influence reverberates through the centuries. That's what Russell wanted to happen with his work on the philosophy of mathematics. That it would be read by small number of people but that its influence would go in waves through the generations.
Now, later on in his political work and with his popular philosophy work like History of Western Philosophy, he was deliberately setting out to write for a wide audience. He was very cross when one reviewer said, "Look, this hardly counts as popular work. It's too difficult." Russell's response to that was to entitle his next collection of essays Unpopular Essays. But, he wanted a wide audience because he'd abandoned academic life, and so he was living on his writings, so he needed a wide audience because that was his means of living. Secondly, he wanted to influence people and so he wanted as wide an audience as possible for his work about peace, about social reconstruction, about politics in order to influence those people.
Now, Oppenheimer, towards the end of his life, again, like Russell, deliberately wrote for a wide audience because he wanted to get across a vision that he'd inherited from Bohr of complementarity, which in the original usage meant looking at particles, looking at elements of physics as both particles and waves at the same time. They're two ways of looking, complementing one another. In his later work, Oppenheimer used that metaphor for the relationship between the arts, and humanities, and the sciences.
Like C. P. Snow in The Two Cultures, Oppenheimer wanted to do his bit to stop the pulling apart of the sciences from the arts and humanities, and so he gave lectures to a wide audience because he wanted to influence that audience and what he wanted to influence them ... The way in which he wanted to influence them was to say, "Look, don't regard science as something that is done apart from society, apart from other ways of understanding ourselves. Look at poetry, literature, art, music and science as all aspects of the same endeavor, complementary aspects of the same endeavor."
David: I think it's a very important point about all of these people and most people who we retrospectively admire as great leaders, and that is their engagement across the full spectrum of human activities. In your book, you described Oppenheimer's obsession with the Vedas and reading Sanskrit, and of course Wittgenstein with Rilke, and you've also mentioned Russell with Conrad. What do you think is going on here? What has happened? Why do we not see the deep true value of the artistic enterprise and its influence on everything else that we do?
Ray Monk: Yeah. That's very interesting. I think one of the things all three of them have in common is that they're aware of that problem and wanted to do something to address that problem. As for why it is, I mean there's not going to be a single straightforward answer to that. Of course, it's not a single problem either. It's a whole collection of problems to do with the way we're brought up, what we expect of us our sons and our daughters, the way academic life is now structured into specialisms. Let's talk about that aspect of it. Wittgenstein could not have survived in today's academia. It was remarkably prescient of the University of Cambridge, first of all, to make Wittgenstein a research student when he hadn't got the basic education of a research student. Then to make him professor of philosophy when he himself said he'd never read a word of Aristotle.
Wittgenstein had a deep abhorrence of academic philosophy but also of the academic life, and I think one reason for that was the tendency of academic life to split things up into specialisms and say, "Look, here's a person who's a great scholar of Joyce. Here's a person who's a nuclear physicist. This person here is a mathematician." Wittgenstein had an interest in physics, in science, in mathematics, in poetry, in everything and the fact that he refused to play the game I think nowadays would mean he just, well, first of all, he wouldn't get published and secondly not being published he wouldn't maintain a position. By today's standards, Wittgenstein would be regarded as non-research active in a British university.
David: That's interesting. It's one of the reasons why the Santa Fe Institute exists. Precisely because we realize the value of all of those different current styles of reasoning. Let me just finish with a slightly disconcerting problem which has to do with leadership today. It's hard for me to imagine you writing a biography of our current leaders given the kinds of people that you're attracted to and the depths of their interests and the philosophical framing of their position. Should we despair or could we learn something from the lives of the people you've written about that would inform the next generation of leaders who are making equally difficult decisions?
Ray Monk: I hope very much it's the latter. I mean, I certainly personally believe there is much to be learned from the lives of Russell, Oppenheimer and Wittgenstein, not only for myself, but I think our society has much to learn. I think more so now than during their lifetimes because more and more we are in need of bringing together science and the humanities. I love the Santa Fe Institute for that reason. That it pays scant regard to academic boundaries and, in academic life, we need to overcome those boundaries. We need to encourage interdisciplinary work. We need to encourage people to be polymaths. But, in life outside academia also, we could do with people reading more novels, reading more poetry. Our leaders don't read enough and they don't read widely enough. I think if we had people who learned from Oppenheimer, Russell and Wittgenstein, we would have better leaders than we have today.
David: Ray Monk, thank you very much.