Q: In an essay on teaching, Bertrand Russell says it’s hard for teachers to maintain their “independence of” the people who pay them. Shouldn’t that be “independence from” those people?
A: In that essay, “The Functions of a Teacher,” Russell uses the phrase “independence of” in a way that was common in the past but is less so today.
He argues that teachers need freedom to follow their intellectual impulses “but in the realm of the mind it is becoming more and more difficult to preserve independence of the great organised forces that control the livelihoods of men and women.”
(The essay appeared originally in the June 1940 issue of Harper’s magazine, and was reprinted in Unpopular Essays, 1950.)
In the past, the noun “independence” was used in such constructions with the prepositions “on,” “upon,” “of,” and “from.” Of those prepositions, “from” had apparently been the least common.
At least that’s what we assume from this comment in the Oxford English Dictionary’s “independence” entry, which hasn’t been fully updated since 1900: “Const. on, upon, of, rarely from.” Here are a few OED examples:
“The dignified clergy … pretended to a total independence on the State” (David Hume, The History of England, From the Invasion of Julius Cæsar to the Accession of Henry VII, 1761-62).
“A pretence of independence upon secular power” (Oliver Goldsmith, The History of England, From the Earliest Times to the Death of George II, 1771).
“Our habitual independence of conventional rules” (Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Blithedale Romance, 1852).
We wouldn’t say Bertrand Russell’s use of “independence of” is wrong or even unusual, but it’s less common these days and modern readers might find it jarring or perhaps confusing.
Today, “independence from” would be the usual construction, as in this Merriam-Webster example: “She asserted her independence from her parents by getting her own apartment.”
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