Advances in Historical Studies
2013. Vol.2, No.1, 6-10
Published Online March 2013 in SciRes (
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
Russell’s Bismarck: Acquaintance Theory
and Historical Distance
Thomas Aiello
Department of History, Valdosta State Universit y , Valdost a , USA
Received December 21st, 2012; revised January 23rd, 2013; accepted Feb rua ry 3rd, 2013
The role of acquaintance in Bertrand Russell’s theory of descriptions is antithetical and, indeed, antago-
nistic toward the practice and assumptions of history. In his 1910 paper “Knowledge by Acquaintance and
Knowledge by Description,” Russell attempts to reconcile direct acquaintance (or its inability to deter-
mine the personal self of others) with a descriptive knowledge that is both logical and personal. Russell
tries to reconcile the internal and external worlds, attempting to explain access to impersonal knowledge
inside a framework that doesn’t allow acquaintance with physical objects—he distorts the historical space
between researcher and subject. In so doing, he argues for the superiority of acquaintance as an arbiter of
knowledge, narrowly avoiding solipsism and wrongly devaluing the most basic of historiograhpical as-
sumptions. His conception creates false historical goals and distorts the space of historical distance, illus-
trated in this paper through the American slavery studies of Herbert Aptheker, Stanley Elkins, and Ken-
neth Stampp.
Keywords: Bismarck; Russell; Acquaintance; Description; Aptheker; Elkins; Stampp
None can know Bismarck like Bismarck can know Bismarck.
In his 1910 paper “Knowledge by Acquaintance and Knowl-
edge by Description,” Russell attempts to reconcile direct ac-
quaintance (or its inability to determine the personal self of
others) with a descriptive knowledge that is both logical and
personal. Russell tries to reconcile the internal and external
worlds, attempting to explain access to impersonal knowledge
inside a framework that doesn’t allow acquaintance with phy-
sical objects—he distorts the historical space between research-
er and subject. In so doing, he argues for the superiority of ac-
quaintance as an arbiter of knowledge, narrowly avoiding sol-
ipsism and wrongly devaluing the most basic of historiogra-
phical assumptions. The role of acquaintance in Bertrand Rus-
sell’s theory of descriptions is antithetical and, indeed, antago-
nistic toward the practice and assumptions of history, leaving
the descriptive knowledge of historians ancillary, sitting quietly
in some kind of cosmic second place. His conception creates
false historical goals and distorts the space of historical distance,
illustrated in this paper through the American slavery studies of
Herbert Aptheker, Stanley Elkins, and Kenneth Stampp.
Russell was a public intellectual and political activist for
much of his long life, but when he presented his 1910 paper
before London’s Aristotelian Society, his principal project re-
mained the application of logical analysis to philosophy. Rus-
sell’s Principia mathematica was at Cambridge University
Press, awaiting publication1. His speeches and published papers
defended an atomistic worldview against the assaults of British
Idealism. The reference to Bismarck in “Knowledge by Acquain-
tance and Knowledge by Description” extends only through a
few brief pages, but the illustration grounds the article and en-
capsulates its argument2.
Descriptions and Acquaintance
Russell’s reference to Bismarck illustrates his contention that
proper names are descriptions. “The thought in the mind of a
person using a proper name correctly can generally only be
expressed explicitly if we replace the proper name by a descrip-
tion.” (Russell, 1911). He assumes for the sake of the illustra-
tion that direct acquaintance with the personal self is possible,
but an outside observer attempting to know that self can only
access it through description. “If a person who knew Bismarck
made a judgment about him,” writes Russell, “what this person
was acquainted with were certain sense-data which he con-
nected… with Bismarck’s body.” (Russell, 1911). References
to Bismarck rest on descriptions, and those descriptions rest on
a direct acquaintance to some aspect of historical knowledge.
Descriptions allow functional evaluations of Bismarck, getting
the evaluator as close to Bismarck’s direct acquaintance with
himself as is possible. But “in this we are necessarily defeated,
since the actual Bismarck is unknown to us.” (Russell, 1911).
While each description is subjective and different, the fact of
Bismarck’s acquaintance with himself grounds each attempt
and allows communication about him. “What enables us to
communicate in spite of the varying descriptions we employ is
2The essay first appeared in print in January 1918 in the book Mysticism
and Logic, an unorthodox collection of popular philosophical and more
technically analytic. “Knowledge by Acquaintance and Knowledge by
Description” is among the latter. Ray Monk, Bertrand Russell:The Spirit o
Solitude, 1872-1921 (New York: The Free Press, 1996), 519-520. Monk’s
account provides a strong biographical account of Russell’s early life. For
more biographical information on Russell, see Ray Monk, Bertrand Russel
The Ghost of Madness, 1921-1970 (New York: The Free Press, 2000); and
Ronald W. Clark, The Life of Bertrand Russell (New York: Alfred A.
Knopf, 1976).
1Russell’s long life lasted from 1872-1970. P r i n cipia mathematicaappeared
in three volumes from 1911-1913.
that we know there is a true proposition concerning the actual
Bismarck, and that, however we may vary the description (so
long as the description is correct), the proposition described is
still the same.” (Russell, 1911). Acquaintances facilitate de-
scriptions, and descriptions facilitate communication.
Acquaintance, for Russell, is “a direct cognitive relation” of
a subject to an object—“the converse of the relation of object
and subject which constitutes presentation.” (Russell, 1911).
Particular sense-data and universal concepts are objects of ac-
quaintance, physical objects and other people’s minds are
known by description. When a proper name is described, the
description is direct. But even in this description acquaintance
is necessary. Russell’s logical description of a proposition such
as “Bismarck is mortal” is (x)(Bx & (y)(By·y=x) & Mx)3. The
value any one evaluator places on B (here standing in for “Bis-
marck”), however, still rests on his or her acquaintance with
certain facts about B. So, while description serves to supple-
ment acquaintance with, say, Bismarck’s mind, it depends on
personally selected historical knowledge about Bismarck—
individual acquaintance with some set of facts.
This is indirect access to Bismarck’s personal entities. As
described by Cora Diamond, “Bismarck, using words that he
alone can understand, can reach by the straight road of ac-
quaintance what we can get to only by side-roads, by descrip-
tions.” (Diamond, 2000). Russell, however, clearly states that
the destination we reach through “side-roads” is not equivalent
to Bismarck’s direct acquaintance. Though “we often intend to
make our statement, not in the form involving the description,
but about the actual thing described… we are necessarily de-
feated.” (Russell, 1911). If direct acquaintance with Bismarck’s
self—the relation that is the goal of description—belongs only
to Bismarck, and statements about Bismarck reached by de-
scription are different than their goal (and can never get there
anyway), then either the value of description is compromised or
the original direct acquaintance with the self must not be the
goal of that description. For Russell, getting close counts, but
he never explains what that closeness gives in relation to the
original goal. The proposition “which is described and is
known to be true, is what interests us,” he writes, “but we are
not acquainted with the proposition itself, and do not know it,
though we know it is true.” (Russell, 1911).
Russell’s potential descriptors attempt to arrive at the knowl-
edge Bismarck has—a perfect knowledge of the self, or some-
thing approximate to it—because he has an acquaintance with
himself that others do not have. “It is,” Russell argues, “very
much a matter of chance which characteristics of a man’s ap-
pearance will come into a friend’s mind when he thinks of him;
thus the description actually in the friend’s mind is accidental.
The essential point is that he knows that the various descrip-
tions all apply to the same entity, in spite of not being ac-
quainted with the entity in question.” (Russell, 1911). In 1910,
there were plenty of people who could have known the living
Bismarck and based their knowledge of him on direct ac-
quaintances with the leader. Bismarck for everyone else—those
in 1910 without contact and those in 2013 learning through the
words of books and professors—can only be known through
acquaintance with propositions, which appears farther from
Bismarck’s knowledge than the friend making “accidental”
descriptions. But Russell notes, “We may know that the
so-and-so exists when we are not acquainted with any object
which we know to be the so-and-so, and even when we are not
acquainted with any object which in fact is the so-and-so.”
(Russell, 1911). He also describes the distance from Bismarck
himself, the “various stages” of removal: “There is Bismarck to
people who knew him, Bismarck to those who only know of
him through history, the man in the iron mask, the longest-lived
of men.” (Russell, 1911). The farther we are from the self of
Bismarck, the less access we have to the world of Bismarck.
Acquaintance and History
By subordinating distanced knowledge to a direct acquaint-
ance, and by making every description dependent upon some
form of personal acquaintance, Russell devalues historical
knowledge. If we constantly talk past each other due to various
acquaintances with proper names such as “Bismarck,” how are
we to reconcile statements such as this one made by historian
Lothar Gall? “The Reich as created by Bismarck had not only
narrowed the historical possibilities for the German nation; it
had deformed the nation itself and in so doing had as it were
perpetuated itself in its negative consequences.” (Gall, 1986).
And how far is this statement from Bismarck himself? Does
Gall’s career of research on the Chancellor still fall short of the
personal contact of, say, Baron von Stumm-Halberg or Wilhelm
von Kardorff? Could either of them have drawn this conclusion?
It bears repeating that Russell posits knowledge by description,
a series of those removed acquaintances, as the only method by
which one could know Bismarck. But by making that knowl-
edge subservient to a quest for the mind of Bismarck, he sells
short the independent value of that description. “Knowledge
concerning what is known by description is ultimately reducible
to knowledge concerning what is known by acquaintance.”
(Russell, 1911). This is not the verificationism of Rudolph Car-
nap, but it sounds like it. Russell makes all understanding de-
pendent on acquaintance with particular sense-data, but the use
of the original acquaintance in direct descriptions to represent
an entity that can never be known the way the descriptor in-
tends to know it gives Russell’s acquaintance theory less surety
than logical positivism. He tells us that we can know, and how
to know, but he never tells us what we can know—the value of
a knowledge filtered through acquaintances and descriptions in
relation to the self-acquaintance of our actual subject. Portray-
ing that knowledge as “good enough” does not seem to be good
Referring to Bismarck’s reference to himself, Russell notes,
“Here the proper name has the direct use which it always
wishes to have, as simply sta nding for a certain object, and not
for a description of the object. But if a person who knew Bis-
marck made a judgment about him, the case is different.”
(Russell, 1911). Herein lies another inconsistency. Any propo-
sition posited by a distanced evaluator contains only a proper
name, and the proper name is a representative of a collection of
facts with which the evaluator is directly acquainted. Bismarck
the historical actor is not in the impersonal proposition. “His-
torical actor” itself is simply a possible element to be directly
described by the proper name “Bismarck.” In other words, each
reference to Bismarck in the proposition is an opportunity for
potential acquaintances. How can Bismarck’s acquaintance with
the self be held as the goal of descriptive propositions if such an
entity as a self-acquainting Bismarck no longer exists and can-
not even be found in language? Russell might respond that
3Generally translated: There exists an x. x is Bismarck. [If y is Bismarck,
then y equals x. (All instances of Bismarck are instances of x.)] x is mortal.
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 7
since the bases of every description are direct acquaintances,
which lend access to knowledge of the world, and since (in this
example) people can have direct acquaintance with the self,
then both Bismarck and his self-acquaintance are justly as-
sumed. After all, the theory of descriptions was intended as a
method of giving individuals access to knowledge of the world
not based on direct experience. But Russell’s response would
be insufficient, as any direct acquaintance that acts as an ele-
ment of the direct description “Bismarck”—such as, to use one
of Russell’s examples, “Bismarck was the first Chancellor of
the German Empire”—finds the proper name embedded in the
proposition. (Russell, 1911). We are left farther and farther
from the knowledge of the intended target with each new pro-
position attempting to posit that knowledge. No history book,
for example, could possibly render a presentation of the first
Chancellor of the German Empire without including a proper
name. “We can only be assured,” he argues, “of the truth of our
judgment in virtue of something with which we are acquaint-
ed—usually a testimony heard or read.” (Russell, 1911). Even
if it is taken for granted that the history book’s Bismarck is
equivalent to the dinner conversation’s Bismarck (which per-
haps is allowing too much, anyway), it remains a proper name,
a stand in for another conglomeration of direct acquaintances,
all of which will hinge on the inclusion of the referent’s proper
Solipsism and Knowledge
For Russell, the theory of descriptions circumvented possible
charges of solipsism in acquaintance theory by granting access
to knowledge of the outside world. As Cora Diamond para-
phrases Russell’s arguments in “Knowledge by Acquaintance
and Knowledge by Description” and other works of the early
1910s, “the limits of the world, about which I can have knowl-
edge, and the objects in which I can denote (whether directly or
in some cases only indirectly ), lie outside the li mits of the realm
of my own experience.” (Diamond, 2000). But Russell ties
everything that can be known to a series of acquaintances,
wholly within “the realm of my own experience.” Prior to his
Bismarck illustration, but in the same paper, Russell notes that
physical objects and other people’s minds are not “among the
objects with which we are acquainted.” (Russell, 1911). If our
knowledge is dependent on acquaintance with sense data (only
cognized at the point in which it comes into contact with our
senses, within the realm of personal experience), and that sense
data is in aid of grasping truths (such as Bismarck’s self aware-
ness) that we can never know, how valid is the knowledge that
lies between these two poles? It seems that Russell is masking
solipsism, rather than arguing against it. If that knowledge is
“indirect,” can it be considered whole? Or, perhaps, can it be
considered equivalent to direct knowledge that we cannot have?
Russell does not answer these questions. Nor does he give a
firm account of how these two forms of knowledge are cogni-
tively related. The primacy of acquaintance makes even direct
descriptions suspect, because in evaluating the logical descrip-
tion of, say, “Bismarck,” any evaluator must have direct ac-
quaintances for evidence of B (and those acquaintances will be
unique to the evaluator, anyway). “We know that there is an
object B called Bismarck,” writes Russell, “and that B was an
astute diplomatist. We can thus describe the proposition we
should like to affirm, namely, ‘B was an astute diplomatist,’
where B is the object which was Bismarck.” (Russell, 1911).
Any evaluator of that description will again come to B through
a unique set of acquaintances.
That uniqueness—that personalness that characterizes indi-
vidual acquaintance—does not, for Russell, preclude agreed
upon knowledge. “Let us assume that we think of [Bismarck] as
‘the first Chancellor of the German Empire.’ Here all the words
are abstract except ‘German.’ The word ‘German’ will again
have different meanings for different people. To some it will
recall travels in Germany, to some the look of Germany on the
map, and so on. But if we are to obtain a description which we
know to be applicable, we shall be compelled, at some point, to
bring in a reference to a particular with which we are acquaint-
ed.” (Russell, 1911). Clearly, however, Germany’s shape—its
border—is a valid particular, and when one participant in
communication understands “German” as, “a human within the
designated border of Germany,” and another assumes, “de-
scendant of the various former Saxon kingdoms,” then that
communication is not direct. We are constantly talking past
each other. But, for Russell, the fact of Bismarck’s own self-
acquaintance, his existence, makes indirect knowledge—these
close approximations to specific agreement—valid. Even if this
state of affairs was acceptable, it does not coincide with Rus-
sell’s theory of descriptions, the goal of which was clarity and
specificity. Furthermore, any statement about Bismarck indi-
rectly references Bismarck’s personal knowledge, what Dia-
mond calls his “private object.” “The quantified proposition,”
as Diamond notes, “follows from Bismarck’s private proposi-
tion.” (Diamond, 2000). This relation between a distanced de-
scription (the “quantified proposition”) and Bismarck’s per-
sonal knowledge demonstrates, for Russell, the benefit in the
attempt. But even the interpretation of the logic of direct de-
scription rests on personal judgments about what sort of
knowledge we have about an object we can never truly know
(to use the aforementioned example, B), so the relation between
the distanced and the personal is constantly changing.
At first glance, this emphasis on the personal can sound like
psychologism, and some psycho-historical compromise be-
tween acquaintance theory and, say, traditional history or soci-
ology, which claim to know individuals better than they know
themselves, would seem appropriate. But Russell was just as
disdainful of psychologism in logical formulation as was his
predecessor Gottlob Frege. Frege not only sought to corral
psychologism, but, like Russell, tried to define away subjectiv-
ity in knowledge. His 1892 “On Sinn and Bedeutung” describes
a “common store of thoughts,” which humans share “from one
generation to another.”4 (Frege, 1892). He would, twenty-six
years later, develop his notion of thought further—its objectiv-
ity and residence in “a third realm”—explaining that it is inde-
pendent of subjectivity, “timelessly true, true independently of
whether anyone takes it to be true.” (Frege, 1918). Thoughts,
for Frege, are the mental entities the whole has acknowledged
as true, independent of what individuals think about them.
What individuals think about them—ideas—act as agents of
access from the mind to the outside thought. Thus, thought is
objective, and ideas only serve as mediating devices to thought,
never from it. Sense, too, is objective, certainly a more difficult
argument to validate considering that it initially seems to stem
4Sinn translates as “sense.” Bedeutung generally translates as “reference,”
because “r eference ” is t he clos est fun ctional match, bu t bedeutung carries a
linguistic weight unequalled by “reference,” and so here is retained in the
original German. It is also retained in editor Michael Beany’s The Frege
, whose translation was used in this study.
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
from the interpretation of individual minds—the places from
which ideas connect to thought. “The same sense is not always
connected,” Frege notes, “even in the same man, with the same
idea. The idea is subjective.” (Frege, 1892). This, however, only
hints at what Frege expressed more clearly other places. “The
sense of the name,” he noted in a 1914 letter to Philip Jourdain,
“is part of the thought.” (Frege, 1914). If thoughts are found
entities—if they are independent of mental creation, simply
discovered and agreed upon by those who acknowledge axioms
and laws—then the functional display of thought (perhaps not
its third realm existence, but surely its useful existence in mind
and discourse) is predicated on combinations of senses, which
facilitate specificity in meaning. “Without a Bedeutung,” Frege
noted in his 1914 letter, “we could indeed have a thought, but…
not a thought that could further scientific knowledge. Without a
sense, we would have no thought, and hence also nothing that
we could recognize as true.” (Frege, 1914).
Acquaintance Theory and Its Role in Slave
Sense and Bedeutung helped Frege remove any lurking psy-
chologism, an attempt most historians choose not to make. But
psycho-historical models are fraught with difficulties of their
own. Historian Kenneth Stampp elaborated an effective critique
of historical psychologism and verificationism in the descrip-
tion of American slavery in his 1971 “Rebels and Sambos: The
Search for the Negro’s Personality in Slavery.” (Stampp, 1971).
Like Russell and Frege, he tries to carve a middle ground that
accounts for knowledge, description, and acquaintance. He
criticizes the analysis of historian Herbert Aptheker, who de-
scribed slaves as active participants in the culture of revolution
perpetuated by slave life, as flawed for its childlike faith in the
limited source material available. Aptheker’s American Negro
Slave Revolts claimed to have found almost two hundred fifty
slave revolts and conspiracies for freedom, each including at
least ten slaves. Stampp notes that while white fear and suppo-
sition of revolt mean something about slave culture, they do not
necessarily mean revolt. By only countenancing written records
as absolute proof (and subsequently ignoring bias, literacy rates,
etc.), Aptheker skewed historical reality to create of the Ameri-
can slave a perpetually rebelling agent. (Stampp, 1971; Apthek-
er, 1943) Stampp also critiques historian Stanley Elkins’s use
of role theory psychoanalysis in evaluations of slave life. Elkins
argued that the closed society of North American slavery and
the single significance of the master/slave relationship con-
spired to create a childlike subservience in slaves that kept them
docile and impotent, a personality he labeled “Sambo.” The
mistakes of his argument lie at the polar extreme from those of
Aptheker. Elkins applied psychoanalytic models to an assumed
group, without first evaluating the historical record to see if his
various theoretical models effectively mapped on to the condi-
tion of the American slave. Stampp responds by warning of
both the danger of applying psychoanalytic categories to his-
torical groups and the contingency of comparative history with-
out primary document research. (Stampp, 1971; Elkins, 1959).
Where Aptheker practiced a tunnel-vision empiricism without a
rigorous critical examination, Elkins applied critical theory to a
subject he had yet to empirically evaluate. It should be ac-
knowledged, however, that Stampp was no Russellian, and did
acknowledge the validity of psychology, speech pathology, and
other alternative interpretive methods in historical research5.
(Feinberg & Kasrils, 1983) More importantly, in delineating
this middle ground, Stampp never abandoned the general his-
torical contention that proper analysis of documents and source
material could lead to an understanding of slavery more com-
plete than any slave or slavemaster could have held. Distanced
knowledge was not subordinate. Propositions could render
agreed upon knowledge without direct acquaintance.
For Russell, “Every proposition which we can understand
must be composed wholly of constituents with which we are
acquainted.” (Russell, 1911). Those acquaintances create logi-
cal propositions that stand in logical relation to other logical
propositions. For Diamond, “If I can take a sentence to stand in
logical relations to other sentences, then I can understand that
sentence.” (Diamond, 2000). So interpreters can understand
sentences about Bismarck, but that understanding will still
contain an element of the personal. “Considered psychologi-
cally, apart from the information we convey to others, apart
from the fact about the actual Bismarck, which gives impor-
tance to our judgment,” writes Russell, “the thought we really
have contains the one or more particulars involved, and other-
wise consists wholly of concepts.” (Russell, 1911). Those par-
ticulars, it should be remembered, are not physical objects.
They are sense data, conveyed by logical propositions. In logic,
however, “where we are concerned not merely with what does
exist, but with whatever might or could exist or be, no reference
to actual particulars is involved.” (Russell, 1911). Why is a
method unconcerned with particulars used to convey particulars
in aid of knowledge of the external world? If an evaluator has
logic and Bismarck has self-acquaintance, why is that self-
acquaintance held as the goal of inquiry? How can these be
considered functionally equal? Perhaps the best counter to the
problems of Russell’s Bismarck was offered by Frege in 1918:
Not everything that can be the object of my acquaintance
is an idea. I, as owner of ideas, am not myself an idea.
Nothing now stops me from acknowledging other men to
be the owners of ideas, just as I am myself. And, once
given the possibility, the probability is very great, so great
that it is in my opinion no longer distinguishable from
certainty. Would there be a science of history otherwise?
Would not all moral theory, all law, otherwise collapse?
What would be left of religion? The natural sciences too
could only be assessed as fables like astrology and al-
chemy. Thus the reflections I have set forth on the as-
sumption that there are other men besides myself, who
can make the same thing the object of their consideration,
their thinking, remain in force without any essential
weakening (Frege, 1918).
Russell’s illustration, however, weakens. It leaves many
questions unanswered as it attempts to reconcile the internal
and external worlds—as he tries to have it both ways in at-
tempting to explain access to impersonal knowledge inside a
framework that doesn’t allow acquaintance with physical ob-
jects. But he cannot have it both ways.
5Russell, in turn, was no Stamppian. He did, however, later in his life,
rovide his own evaluation on slavery, though far less nuanced than that o
his historian counterparts. Speaking at the Civil Rights Freedom March, 28
August 1963, in Washington DC, Russell declared, “The treatment of the
American Negr o i s an at ro cit y whi ch h as a hi sto ry of thr ee hun dr ed year s in
what is no w the Untied Stat es of America… He has s uffered an ex perience
of systematic terror in which he could, and indeed can today in many parts
of the Untied States, be shot down at will.” (Feinberg & Kasrils, 1983).
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 9
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
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