Notes on Bertrand Russell

   Posted by: rring   in College Archives, Visiting researcher

[Posted by Bernard Linsky, Department of Philosophy, University of Alberta, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, bernard.linsky@ualberta.ca]

IMG_2856I am a professor in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Alberta, in Edmonton, Canada, and have been working on the logic and philosophy of Bertrand Russell for some years now. My current project is, with the assistance of James Levine, at that other Trinity College, in Dublin, to edit lecture notes from various courses that Russell taught between 1910 and 1914. Russell became a lecturer at Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1910 until he was dismissed over his opposition to World War I in 1916. This was the only period when Russell lived the life of University lecturer, and there are to this date, no notes on his lectures have been published.

Russell was invited to be a visiting professor at Harvard University in the Spring Semester of 1914 when he was giving the Lowell Lectures, later published as Our Knowledge of the External World.  Russell also taught an undergraduate course on Theory of Knowledge, and an upper level course on “Advanced Logic.” Russell had wanted to teach in the Cambridge “Lent” term, and so was only able to arrive in Cambridge, Mass. on March 13th. As the Winter semester began on February 10, 1914, someone was needed to step in to cover the lectures in the course until Russell arrived.

While the famous philosopher Josiah Royce gave the first lectures in the Theory of Knowledge Course, a recent PhD graduate, Harry Todd Costello, was selected to begin the Advanced Logic. Costello gave fourteen lectures before Russell arrived. I was surprised to discover that there were notes from this course, although they had never been published, but remained in the archives of Houghton Library at Harvard. These notes on “Advanced Logic” were by one of Costello’s fellow graduate students, then in his last year, one Thomas Stearns Eliot. Eliot was writing a dissertation on the British Philosopher Francis H. Bradley at the time, and was already a poet, writing the brief “Mr Appolinax” in that year, about Russell’s visit.

To my surprise, no one had bothered to publish Eliot’s notes, as they had his dissertation. Perhaps this was in part because the notes are in the mathematical symbols of Whitehead and Russell’s Principia Mathematica, which was then just published. I have now completed transcribing the notes, and will publish them with some discussion of their significance for understanding Russell’s logic. I don’t think that they help to understand Eliot’s poetry at all, and that may be why English professors haven’t been interested in the notes.

Some time last year one of my very sensible colleagues asked me if I had looked for Costello’s notes from that course. Surely he must have kept them among his papers as a reminder of his famous role as Russell’s Teaching Assistant. I had never thought of this, and immediately started writing to Trinity College to find out about Costello’s papers.

After leaving Harvard Harry Costello became a professor of Philosophy at Trinity College from around 1921 until his retirement in 1957. A bachelor, who lived in housing on campus for years, Costello was a well-known but slightly eccentric character who worked on the faculty Library committee overseeing the operations of the library and even buying books. I would love to know if there are any legends about Harry Costello still circulating at Trinity.  I had found online that the archives in Watkinson library keeps the papers of former faculty members, and so it seemed possible that they would have Costello’s papers.

On May 20th of this year, a little over a week ago, I walked into the archives to be greeted by Henry Arneth, the special collections assistant, who had brought up two boxes of Harry Costello’s papers, and I started to look through them. Within minutes I had found the notes that Costello had lectured from in those first weeks of 1914. They were more detailed than those of T.S. Eliot, who, after all, was just a student in the class. Then I looked through some other material, such as every class list and grade record from every course that Costello ever taught during his career, although he had left the Harvard class list to Russell. If anyone has an ancestor who took a course from Dr Costello at Trinity in those years, you can come to the archives and find it out. (I think that’s public information, but you will have to consult with the Head Librarian Richard Ring.) I also found some philosophical humor in Costello’s notebooks, presumably his own creations:

I am Mr Francis Bradley

When my liver cuts up badly,

I take refuge from the brute

in the blessed Absolute.


There is also a dig at a timorous administrator:

I am, that is, I mean,

I think that I am called

the junior Dean.

The boxes also contained endless lists of books that Costello had bought, presumably for the Trinity College Library, and a list of movies he had seen, including the leading cast. I saw on campus that students at Trinity College still like to go to the movies.

I had showed up at the archives at 10:00, which is the opening time for the public, found Costello’s notes for his own lectures by 10:30 and then looked through the other fascinating things in the boxes for another hour. Then, in among pocket diaries with the movies and book lists, I found a little notebook that contained Costello’s own notes from courses at Harvard. In the last part of the notebook I recognized his notes on Russell’s lectures from 1914! After standing at the front of the classroom for the first fourteen classes, Costello then took his place with the other students, and started taking notes as well. Not only do we have T.S. Eliot’s notes on Russell’s lectures, but we have the even better source of information, Harry Todd Costello’s notes on Russell’s lectures!

Henry Arneth dropped what he was doing and went to the basement and carefully scanned the notes I wanted, and sent me off with a key full of jpg images. Sally Dickinson, the associate curator, helped to find the one book of Costello’s notes, on Josiah Royce’s seminar, that had been published in 1962, and asked me to explain what I had found. I was too excited to think clearly, and it helped to start to tell this story in what I hope is a more coherent fashion. Peter Knapp, the College Archivist, was sadly unwell and away from work, and so completely missed the excitement. My thanks to him for protecting the Costello papers all these years.

Faculty and students at Trinity College should be proud of the history of their college, and of the work that has been done to preserve it in their college archives. I would encourage students to look in books in the College Library, to see if they were donated from Costello’s personal collection, and, by chance, whether he might have written something in a copy of Russell’s works that I should know about.

I’ll be back in Hartford. As I have learned, it is essential to revisit archives before publishing material from them. There is always something in the images that is a bit unclear, and as I can attest, you never know what you will find in boxes in an archive.

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