Russell’s Bismarck: Acquaintance Theory and Historical Distance


The role of acquaintance in Bertrand Russell’s theory of descriptions is antithetical and, indeed, antagonistic 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 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 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 assumptions. 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.

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Aiello, T. (2013). Russell’s Bismarck: Acquaintance Theory and Historical Distance. Advances in Historical Studies, 2, 6-10. doi: 10.4236/ahs.2013.21003.

Conflicts of Interest

The authors declare no conflicts of interest.


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