Ludwig Wittgenstein said

Russell’s books should be bound in two colours…those dealing with mathematical logic in red – and all students of philosophy should read them; those dealing with ethics and politics in blue – and no one should be allowed to read them.

As of today, is it correct that both Wittgenstein's and Russell's works on mathematical logic are outdated and only have historic significance?

What did Wittgenstein mean by his comment on Russell's work on ethics and politics? What was the difference between the two in ethics and politics? (I read that Wittgenstein was hoping to migrate to Soviet Union to become a manual worker and liked to live in Norway more than in Cambridge. Did Wittgenstein hold democratic socialism belief while Russell didn't?)


  • Wittgenstein: yes. His contribution to modern logic is negligesble. Russell & Whitehead: paramount historical significance. – Mauro ALLEGRANZA Sep 5 at 15:22
  • What do you mean by "paramount historical significance"? Do I have to read it for learning mathematical logic or philosophical logic? Can contemporary textbooks replace it? – Tim Sep 5 at 15:24
  • How is the status of their works "as of today" relevant to what Wittgenstein thought back then? And Russell's works on ethics and politics were not particularly prominent philosophically, and not just according to Wittgenstein, so he did not need to have political differences with Russell to say what he said. There are too many unrelated questions for one post, our policy is one question per question. – Conifold Sep 5 at 15:35
  • @MauroALLEGRANZA: I think you underestimate Wittgenstein's impact dramatically. W marks the juncture where Russell's conception of Analytic Philosophy started to die, and the whole discipline shifted in the direction of Austin, Searle, and Ordinary Language Philosophy. – Ted Wrigley Sep 5 at 16:04
  • @Conifold "one question per question". nice saying – Tim Sep 5 at 16:09

The philosophical works of Russell, Wittgenstein, and others in the Analytic Philosophy tradition of that era are still of great importance. Their ideal may have failed — they never managed to bridge the philosophical gap between logic and the objective world to produce the fully 'scientific' logic they had desired — but there is no denying that they made significant contributions to both mathematics and systematic logic. As the poets say (and every philosopher knows in his heart) we learn more by failure than by success.

Politically, however, Russell was an ardent dilettante social activist. See the wikipedia page on his political views. This is his assessment, not mine; he consistently tried to keep his philosophy separate from his political interests, to maintain the former's standing as insular and objective. His political views were passionate, but lacked the intellectual consistency and rigor of his philosophical work. Wittgenstein, by contrast, was largely disinterested in politics, or if he was interested, his interests were hidden behind his typically indirect, aphoristic writing style. Wittgenstein in his later years always aimed to subtly lead people to think through to conclusions; he avoided the kinds of direct, pointed assertions that are typical of political claims.

I suspect this particular quote is aimed at a less savvy subset of Russell's followers who conflated Russell's philosophy and politics. Put in less snarky terms, Wittgenstein is suggesting that Russell's philosophical work is unique, sophisticated, and important, while Russell's political work is garden-variety polemics that no one would think twice about except that they were written by Russell. Wittgenstein doesn't want Russell's legacy tied to the latter.

| improve this answer | |

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.