Russell's Logical Atoms: The Implications for Critical Theory

E.W. Wilder

Issue 3 * Summer 2000

Not since the early forays into Structuralism has literary criticism delved seriously into a quantifiable, scientific account of the critical apparatus. Arguably, psychological forms of criticism would fit this particular bill, but their reliance on psychoanalysis renders them scientifically suspect. Perhaps this problem is due to a non-quantificatory streak infesting literary critics: we consider ourselves "word" people and not "number" people, and any attempt at coming to terms with criticism scientifically seems soulless and inhumane to us. The long shadow of the film Dead Poet's Society, in which a fictional critic's attempt to quantify and graph poetic quality is openly ridiculed, doesn't seem to help. Most likely is that we have chosen more rhetorically and less specifically scientific theories of literature of late: Deconstruction, Feminist Theory, even the New Historicism seem all to rely on embracing specific trends or following the lead of specific personalities and less on provable systems of theory.

In order to try to fill this gap (to the best of my limited abilities) I make the following proposal. A loose application of a quasi-Russellian logical atomism to literary study would provide an inter-theoretical basis for criticism that would be both flexible and easy-to-use. This would considerably simplify the formulation and expression of critical observations. Such a meta-theoretical language would allow for quick comparison and standardization of critical notations and terminology, thus eliminating the mis-communications that seem to take place between each theoretical "camp."

A brief explanation of Bertrand Russell's logical atomism is necessary. As outlined and made practical by Brian Skyrms, logical atomism consists of quantified variables which can be substituted by names, and which combined into logical complexes (compound variables such as propositions), can be fitted into a scheme of sentential logic (221). The idea here is that real or conceptual "simples"--points of existence in a world, for instance--could be translated into a basic building-block of a larger logical model of the workings of that world. These logical atoms could then be said to provide a basic substrate for any sort of proposition, idea, or concept you like in much the same way that regular atoms are said to comprise molecules: the example of two hydrogen atoms combining with one oxygen atom to produce water is most familiar.

The advantage of this is the ease with which it allows facts, ideas, propositions to be compounded, combined, dealt with in an easy way:

One of the attractive features of logical atomism is that it makes the combinatorial semantics--the combinatorial theory of possibility--so straight-forward. Possibility just consists of therearrangement of atomic individuals, properties and relations that have been abstracted from atomic facts. (Skyrms 227-8)

Further, logical atomism allows for a certain standardization of facts for any given world one wishes to contemplate by mapping these facts from said world as functions of their relative positions (Skyrms 230). And since these facts are themselves atomistic, "[f]or all intents and purposes, the world is the totality of facts" (Skyrms 231).

Thus we are able to communicate across fields of critical study by creating a standard world into which we place our sets of theoretical facts. We simply then map them relationally, and any given fact in any given field of study can be easily seen to correspond with a counterpart in any other field. Provided these relationships are combinatorial, the mathematics of figuring and expressing critical concepts becomes very simple indeed: they are expressible as simple additions and subtractions.

Let us take an instance from a familiar concept, the influence of Puritan thought on American culture. I choose this also because the idea has wide-ranging relevance for cultural studies, film criticism, literary criticism, art, and music, as it will be eventually applied.

In the introduction to their The Puritans in America: a Narrative Anthology, Alan Heimert and Andrew Delbanco give an account of biblical typology, a concept in which certain figures of the Old Testament are seen to typify Christian notions, foreshadowing the nature of Christ (10-11). This idea was advanced by the Puritans into their contemporary experience such that "some concluded that their American refuge might actually be the New Jerusalem promised in Revelation" (Heimert and Delbanco 11). This fact can be thought of as one logical simple, or atom, to which to add another combinatorial concept, that of the Puritans' tendency for hard work. We'll call the concept of biblical typology (P).

Heimert and Delbanco describe Puritan work patterns this way:

Since the enormously influential books of Max Weber and R.H. Tawney, a consensus has emerged that Puritanism found especially congenial conscripts among those who were beginning to live within the structures and rhythms of early capitalism--as merchants, entrepreneurs, craftsmen in other's employ. (14)

They go on to quote Christopher Hill as characterizing Puritans as "the industrious sort" (14). Thus we get a picture of the Puritans as hard working, a fact we will express as (WE).

If, then, we combine these two simple facts, that Puritans were obsessed with biblical typology and were hard working, we can simply say

(P) + (WE) = (PWE)

meaning that the simple (P), combined with the simple (WE) produces the compound (PWE). The work ethic and the typology can then be said to produce one complex aspect of the Puritan world-view.

From here we can expand the idea into a still more complex concept with relative ease. Provided that we accept the idea that Puritan concepts are still a part of American life--we'll call this assumption (A)--, we can apply contemporary concepts to the above compound fact:

We can then add any variable we wish--or any set of variables if need be. As an example of how this might work, we can examine the rise of the Beatles as a cultural phenomenon.

The popularity of the Beatles can in some part be seen as indicative of the musical trends of the times. In the early 1960s they resembled the popular form of Rock n' Roll, and by their break-up in 1970 they had moved toward a more psychedelic style more in line with the counterculture. They were not the only psychedelic band, of course, and their switch in style, while the most celebrated and popular, was not the first, nor the most innovative. Prior to their shift to psychedelia, the Beatles were known to frequent clubs in which Pink Floyd were playing some of their early gigs. Indeed, Pink Floyd's first two albums were recorded at Abbey Road studios at roughly the same time as the seemingly revolutionary Sgt. Pepper's. This, and the fact that Bob Dylan had turned the Beatles on to psychotropic chemicals a year or so earlier are common knowledge, but both point to a potentially derivative flavor in the music of the Beatles. Sparing the reader he details of their construction, this set of facts can be expressed by the complex (BTL).

We can further express the previous compound,(A)(PWE), as the desire for mediocrity in American culture since, given (A), Americans are still obsessed with both biblical typology and hard work. Biblical typology would determine that Americans wish to stand out as anyone other than those who exemplify biblical precepts, thus spurning truly innovative likes and dislikes. The desire to exemplify a holy type results, therefore, in a wish for normalcy. Americans wish to be seen as the "salt of the Earth," hardworking, plain, destined for heaven.

Since the Beatles made their switch to psychedelia only after the counterculture had become established, and because they were themselves an established band, their switch became accepted, and that which they represented followed suit. So the American mediocrity principle can be expressed as (MD). Thus,

(A)PWE) = (MD)(BTL)(A)

The fact of contemporary America cancels out, so

(PWE) = (MD)(BTL)

This expresses in a simple, quantifiable manner the complex idea that the Puritan ideals of biblical typology and hard work have their contemporary equivalency in the popularity of the Beatles.

The advantages of this system are now absolutely clear: it does away with sticky issues of conceptual ambiguity and field-specific terminology and is expressible in a compact, easy-to-understand manner, doing away with much of the noisome exegesis so characteristic of, and detrimental to the practice of, contemporary criticism.


Works Cited

Heimert, Alan and Andrew Delbanco, eds. Introduction. The Puritans in America: A Narrative Anthology. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1985.

Skyrms, Brian. "Logical Atoms and Combinatorial Possibility." The Journal of Philosophy 90 (1993): 219-32.