Bertrand Russell

Bertrand Russell
(1872 - 1970)

English logician and philosopher, best known for his work in mathematical logic and for his social and political campaigns, including his advocacy of both pacifism and nuclear disarmament. He received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1950.

Early years.
Russell was the second son of Viscount Amberley and his wife, Katherine, daughter of the 2nd Baron Stanley of Alderley. Lord Amberley was the third son of Lord John Russell, who was twice prime minister and became the 1st Earl Russell.
Katherine Amberley died of diphtheria in 1874, and Amberley himself died 18 months later. The Amberleys had very advanced views and had intended to place Bertrand and his brother Frank (then aged 10) under the guardianship of friends who were atheists. But the children's grandparents had no difficulty, given the feeling of the time, in upsetting the will and getting the boys made wards in Chancery, so that they were brought up by their Russell grandmother, a strict yet politically liberal-minded Puritan with a rigid personal conscience and exacting standards. Bertrand Russell was educated privately, had little contact with other children, and developed an intense inner life, full of idealistic feeling and metaphysical profundities, all imbued with a passionate desire for certainty in knowledge. At the age of 11 he began to have religious doubts, and, eventually, the skeptical cast of his intelligence prevailed over his upbringing. He came to disagree with his family on everything except politics, but he was also able to accept the disillusionment of finding that logical certainty was unattainable in empirical matters and to accept as well the stunning disappointment (when introduced by his brother at the age of 11 to the delightful certainties of mathematics) of being told that the axioms of geometry could not be proved but had to be taken on trust.

This situation set the pattern of Russell's philosophical career. He was determined not to be beguiled by human pretensions to knowledge or by unbacked assumptions either about the foundations of knowledge or about what may be said to exist. Henceforth, one of his primary aims was to inquire, with skeptical and parsimonious intent, "how much we can be said to know and with what degree of certainty or doubtfulness."

He entered Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1890, was at once recognized as intellectually outstanding, and soon became a member of the exclusive society known to outsiders as "The Apostles." He was winner of first-class honours in the Mathematical Tripos (honours examination) in 1893 and then turned to philosophy, becoming for several years an idealist under the influence of the Cambridge metaphysician J.M.E. McTaggart and taking a first-class degree in moral sciences in 1894.

In the same year, against the wishes of his family, he married Alys Pearsall Smith, the sister of Logan Pearsall Smith (the author of Trivia) and a Quaker from Philadelphia with advanced views. In the next two years he lectured in the United States on non-Euclidian geometry, traveled in Germany to study economics, was introduced to Marxism by the social democrats there, and, as a result, was appointed first lecturer at the London School of Economics and Political Science. His first published book--written from the orthodox liberal point of view--was German Social Democracy (1896). He remained a liberal until he joined the Labour Party in 1914. He also won a fellowship at Trinity with a dissertation entitled "An Essay on the Foundations of Geometry."

First philosophical works.
In 1898, with Trinity fellow G.E. Moore leading the way, he rebelled against idealism and became, broadly, an empiricist, a positivist, and what philosophers would call a physical realist (though in everyday matters he was what the layperson would call a materialist) for the rest of his philosophical career.
His career may be said to have involved three main aims, with an underlying premise that the scientific view of the world is largely the correct view. The most fundamental and pervasive aim was the one already mentioned: that of paring down to a minimum and to their simplest expression the pretensions of human knowledge. This aim manifested itself in such books as An Inquiry into Meaning and Truth (1940) and his last major work, Human Knowledge, Its Scope and Limits (1948), which was intended to be a definitive survey. The second aim involved the linking of logic and mathematics, as in his first major work, The Principles of Mathematics (1903), with the object of showing that mathematics can be deduced from a very small number of logical principles. The third aim was analytic: assuming that it is possible to infer something about the world from the language in which it is (correctly) described, Russell analyzed that language down to its minimum requirements--its atomic facts--in order to avoid unnecessarily postulating the existence of the objects denoted by descriptive phrases (such as "The present king of France"). This aim manifested itself in the so-called theory of descriptions, in the philosophy of logical atomism, and in such books as The Analysis of Matter (1927) and The Analysis of Mind (1921), the main thesis of which holds that mind and matter are different "structurings" of the same "neutral" elements.

After an interlude of work on G.W. Leibniz (A Critical Exposition of the Philosophy of Leibniz [1900]), Russell embarked upon his major work on logic and mathematics, starting with the first draft of The Principles of Mathematics (1903) and culminating more than a decade later in the publication of the three volumes of Principia Mathematica (1910, 1912, and 1913), written in collaboration with his friend and former tutor, the philosopher and mathematician Alfred North Whitehead. This work, together with Russell's ancillary work on logic, was immensely influential among logicians for many years, even though the two authors agreed that they had not completely fulfilled their purpose of deriving mathematics from self-evident logical principles.

At the beginning of this decade of work--the hardest in Russell's whole life--he underwent what he called a "mystic illumination," which in five minutes transformed him into a pacifist (and a pro-Boer in England's war against the Boers of South Africa) and overwhelmed him with "semimystical feelings about beauty." It was in 1903 that he suddenly fell out of love with his wife Alys, though the couple did not divorce until 1921, Russell in 1910 having met Lady Ottoline Morrell, a prominent literary hostess, with whom he developed a long-lasting relationship.

In 1902 there appeared the popular and, as he later felt, overwritten essay "The Free Man's Worship." In 1907 he stood unsuccessfully for Parliament, campaigning for woman suffrage and free trade. In 1908 he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society.

Later political and philosophical works.
During World War I his activities as a pacifist resulted in his being fined 100 in 1916, dismissed from his lectureship at Trinity College, and imprisoned for six months in 1918. While in prison he wrote his Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy (1919) and started reading for his work The Analysis of Mind (1921).
In 1919 Russell met Dora Black, with whom he visited China in 1920 and whom he married as his second wife in 1921. Russell visited the Soviet Union in 1920 and, the same year, published The Practice and Theory of Bolshevism, which was markedly critical of the regime, stressing its totalitarian nature and predicting and condemning many of the aspects of what was later to be called Stalinism.

Since the publication of Principia Mathematica, Russell's philosophical work had been mainly analytic and as such was one of the inspirations for the analytic movement in philosophy, with which, however, Russell himself eventually lost sympathy. In working out his philosophy of logical atomism, he was influenced to some extent by his pupil Ludwig Wittgenstein, whom he had first met in 1911, and in particular by the basic doctrine of Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1922), which held that a proposition is a picture of the facts that it asserts and must have in a sense the same structure. Russell continued throughout his life to stress the importance of structure and indeed used the notion of similarity of structure in Human Knowledge, Its Scope and Limits (1948) as a criterion in inferring causal relationships. But he disagreed with Wittgenstein's later and influential Philosophical Investigations (1953).

During the 1920s much of his work was written for the layman; some of it was vulgarization in the respectable sense, as in The ABC of Atoms (1923) and The ABC of Relativity (1925); the rest ranged from What I Believe (1925) to Marriage and Morals (1929), The Scientific Outlook (1931), and Education and the Social Order (1932). All of these highly influential books were written with barbed wit from a politically, morally, and intellectually left-wing radical and antiobscurantist point of view. He also wrote, at the expert's level, on ethics--mainly from a utilitarian standpoint--and on political, social, and educational philosophy.

In 1927 he and his wife Dora started an experimental school at Telegraph House, near Petersfield, which was carried on by Dora after their divorce (in 1935) until the outbreak of war in 1939 and the permissiveness of which, though advanced for those days, was somewhat exaggerated by public gossip.

On his brother's death in 1931, Russell succeeded to the title as 3rd Earl. In 1934 he published Freedom and Organization, 1814-1914 and, in 1937, The Amberley Papers, both written with the help of a research assistant, Patricia Spence, whom he married in 1936.

As a pacifist, he supported British policy at Munich in 1938, though after war broke out he acknowledged that Adolf Hitler had to be defeated as "a necessary prelude to anything good." After lectureships in the United States during 1938 and 1939, his appointment to a professorship at City College in New York was annulled by the courts, one of the grounds being that he was an advocate of sexual immorality. (See the appendix to his Why I Am Not a Christian, 1927, edited by Paul Edwards.) Russell was temporarily saved from poverty by a five-year contract to lecture at the Barnes Foundation in Pennsylvania, but this was canceled in 1943. He used his lectures as a basis for his History of Western Philosophy (1945), which became an immediate best-seller both in Britain and in the United States and was his main source of revenue for many years. In the meantime, on his return to Britain in 1944, Russell had been appointed lecturer and fellow of Trinity College.

The next 15 years saw him attain rapidly increasing fame and respectability, initiated by appearances on the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) "Brains Trust" programs and consolidated by his delivery in 1949 of the first BBC Reith Lectures and by his receipt in 1949 of the Order of Merit and, in 1950, of the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Political activism.
When Human Knowledge, Its Scope and Limits was published in 1948, it received a respectful but lukewarm reception, partly because the theory of knowledge was at that time out of fashion and partly because, since World War II, there had been in any case a turning away from Russell's ideas. This reception was a sharp disappointment to Russell, but he was in any case unsympathetic to the then-current linguistic movement in philosophy. Except for the writing of My Philosophical Development (1959) and a few reviews, he began to divert his attention from philosophy to international politics. As a result, from about 1952, when he was divorced from Patricia Spence and married Edith Finch, an American, he became progressively less respectable in the eyes of established authority and more influential in the eyes of the young and left-wing throughout the world. In 1954 he made his famous "Man's Peril" broadcast on the BBC, condemning the Bikini H-bomb tests. This led to the Russell-Einstein statement of protest by Nobel scientists, to the Pugwash Conferences of scientists from both East and West (Russell was elected president of the first conference in 1957), and, eventually, to the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, launched in 1958, again with Russell as president. He resigned, however, in 1960 and formed the more militant Committee of 100 with the overt aim of inciting mass civil disobedience, and he himself with Lady Russell led mass sit-ins in 1961 that brought them a two-month prison sentence, which was reduced to seven days, however, on health grounds.
During the remainder of the '60s, he vehemently attacked the United States' policies in Vietnam. With the help of the French existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre and others, he convened an International War Crimes Tribunal to publicize alleged American atrocities in Vietnam.

The last three years of the '60s saw the publication in three volumes of one of Russell's finest works--witty, candid, absorbing, and beautifully written--his own Autobiography.

Bertrand Russell had one of the most widely varied and persistently influential intellects of the 20th century. During most of his active life, a span of three generations, Russell had at any time more than 40 books in print ranging over philosophy, mathematics, science, ethics, sociology, education, history, religion, politics, and polemic. The extent of his influence resulted partly from his amazing efficiency in applying his intellect (he normally wrote at the rate of 3,000 largely unaltered words a day) and partly from the deep humanitarian feeling that was the mainspring of his actions. This feeling expressed itself consistently at the frontier of social change through what he himself would have called a liberal anarchistic, left-wing, and skeptical atheist temperament.


Biographical studies include Alan Wood, Bertrand Russell: The Passionate Sceptic (1957), written by a friend and philosophical disciple, with Russell's cooperation; Ronald W. Clark, The Life of Bertrand Russell (1975), a lengthy treatment, and Bertrand Russell and His World (1981), brief but full; Alan Ryan, Bertrand Russell: A Political Life (1988, reissued 1993); and Caroline Moorehead, Bertrand Russell (1992). Essays analyzing Russell's philosophy may be found in D.F. Pears, Bertrand Russell and the British Tradition in Philosophy, 2nd ed. (1972), on the development of Russell's philosophy from 1905 to 1919; D.F. Pears (ed.), Bertrand Russell (1972); A.J. Ayer, Bertrand Russell (1972, reprinted 1988; also published as Russell, 1972); Paul Arthur Schilpp (ed.), The Philosophy of Bertrand Russell, 5th ed. (1974, reissued 1989); R.M. Sainsbury, Russell (1979, reissued 1985); C.W. Kilmister, Russell (1984); and Paul Grimley Kuntz, Bertrand Russell (1986).

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