Introduction | Life | Work | Books
Bertrand Arthur William Russell (3rd Earl Russell) (AKA Sir Bertrand Russell) (1872 - 1970) was a British philosopher, logician, mathematician and historian.
He is generally credited with being one of the founders of Analytic Philosophy, and almost all the various Analytic movements throughout the 20th Century (particularly Logicism, Logical Positivism and Ordinary Language Philosophy) owe something to Russell. His major works, such as his essay "On Denoting" and the huge "Principia Mathematica" (co-author with Alfred North Whitehead), have had a considerable influence on mathematics (especially set theory), linguistics and all areas of philosophy.
He was a prominent atheist, pacifist and anti-war activist, and championed free trade between nations and anti-imperialism. He was a prolific writer on many subjects (from his adolescent years, he wrote about 3,000 words a day, with relatively few corrections), and was a great popularizer of philosophy.
Russell was born on 18 May 1872 at the Russell family seat at "Ravenscroft" in the village of Trellech in Monmouthshire, southeast Wales, into an aristocratic family. The Russell family had been prominent in Britain for several centuries, since Tudor times, and had established themselves as one of Britain's leading Whig (Liberal) families. His father was John Russell, Viscount Amberley, (son of John Russell, 1st Earl Russell, who had twice served as British Prime Minister in the 1840s and 1860s), a confirmed Atheist and a rather scandalous (for the time) freethinker in matters of birth control and open marriage. His mother was Katherine Louisa, the daughter of the 2nd Baron Stanley of Alderley, who carried on an open affair with their children's tutor. He had two siblings, Frank (nearly seven years older) and Rachel (four years older). John Stuart Mill, the great Utilitarian philosopher, was Russell's godfather and, although Mill died the year after his birth, Russell was influenced by his work.
In 1874, when Russell was just two years old, his mother died of diphtheria, followed shortly by his sister Rachel and, less than two years later, his father also died of bronchitis following a long period of depression. Bertrand and his brother Frank were placed in the care of their staunchly Victorian grandparents, who lived at Pembroke Lodge in Richmond Park near London. Just two more years later, his grandfather also died, and the Countess Russell was therefore the dominant family figure for the rest of Russell's childhood and youth. Although she was from a conservative Scottish Presbyterian family (and successfully overturned a provision in Russell's father's will that the children be raised as Agnostics), she held progressive views in other areas, and her influence on Russell's outlook on social justice and standing up for principle remained with him throughout his life.
His brother Frank reacted to the atmosphere of frequent prayer, emotional repression and formality with open rebellion, but the young Bertrand learned to hide his feelings. Russell's adolescence was, however, very lonely and he often contemplated suicide (he once remarked that only the wish to know more mathematics kept him from suicide). He was educated at home by a series of tutors, and he spent countless hours in his grandfather's library. His brother Frank introduced him as a boy to the work of the Greek mathematician Euclid, which transformed Russell's life.
In 1890, Russell won a scholarship to read for the Mathematics Tripos at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he became acquainted with the younger G. E. Moore and came under the influence of Alfred North Whitehead, who recommended him to the Cambridge Apostles (Cambridge's elite intellectual secret society). He quickly distinguished himself in mathematics and philosophy, graduating with a B.A. in mathematics in 1893 and adding a fellowship in philosophy in 1895. He fell in love with the puritanical, high-minded American Quaker Alys Pearsall Smith and married her (against his grandmother's wishes) towards the end of 1894.
His first published work was a political study, "German Social Democracy", in 1896 and he was soon involved with various groups of social reformers and left-wing Fabian campaigners. His first mathematical book, "An Essay on the Foundations of Geometry", followed close behind in 1897. In 1903, he wrote his important "The Principles of Mathematics" and, in 1905, the essay "On Denoting" (considered one of the most significant and influential philosophical essays of the 20th Century) was published in the philosophical journal "Mind". He became a fellow of the Royal Society in 1908.
Soon after the beginning of the new century, though, Russell and Whitehead began working on their groundbreaking masterwork, the "Principia Mathematica", an attempt to derive all mathematical truths from a well-defined set of axioms and inference rules in symbolic logic. It became their abiding passion, almost to the exclusion of all else, and Russell and Alys even moved in with the Whiteheads in order to expedite the work (although Russell's own marriage suffered as he became infatuated with Whitehead's young wife, Evelyn). The first of three volumes of the "Principia Mathematica" was published in 1910, with the second and third volumes following in 1912 and 1913, and, despite some understandable bewilderment over the dense and complex tract, Russell soon became world famous in his field.
Russell's marriage to Alys remained something of a hollow shell, however, until they finally divorced in 1921, after a lengthy period of separation. Throughout this period, Russell had passionate, and often simultaneous, affairs with a number of high society women, including Lady Ottoline Morrell and the actress Lady Constance Malleson.
In 1911, Russell became acquainted with the young Austrian engineering student Ludwig Wittgenstein, whom he viewed as a genius and as a successor who would continue his work on Logic. He devoted many hours to dealing with Wittgenstein's various phobias and his frequent bouts of despair, but Russell continued to be fascinated by him and encouraged his academic development, even as it began to diverge more and more from his own views, including the later publication of Wittgenstein's masterwork "Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus" in 1922.
During World War I, Russell engaged in pacifist activities, which resulted in his dismissal from Trinity College following a conviction in 1916 and, in 1918, six months' imprisonment in Brixton prison. In 1920, Russell traveled to Russia as part of an official delegation sent by the British government to investigate the effects of the Russian Revolution, during which he met Vladimir Ilyich Lenin (1870 - 1924), although his experiences destroyed his previous tentative support for the Revolution. He subsequently lectured for a year in Beijing, China, accompanied by his lover Dora Black, at one point becoming gravely ill with pneumonia (eliciting incorrect reports of his death in the Japanese press).
On the couple's return to England in 1921, Dora was six months pregnant, and Russell arranged a hasty divorce from Alys, marrying Dora six days after the divorce was finalized. They had two children, John Conrad Russell (born 1921) and Katharine Jane Russell (born 1923). Russell supported himself during this time by writing popular books explaining matters of physics, Ethics and education to the layman. He also founded (together with Dora) the experimental Beacon Hill School in 1927, and after he left the school in 1932, Dora continued it until 1943.
Russell separated from, and finally divorced, Dora in 1932 (after she had had two children with an American journalist, Griffin Barry). He married his third wife, an Oxford undergraduate (who had also been his children's governess since the summer of 1930) named Patricia ("Peter") Spence. They had a son, Conrad Sebastian Robert Russell, who later became a prominent historian and one of the leading figures in the Liberal Democrat party.
After the World War II, Russell moved to the United States, teaching at the University of Chicago and then the University of California, Los Angeles. He was appointed professor at the City College of New York in 1940 but the appointment was annulled by a court judgment after a public outcry over his opinions and morals. He joined the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, lecturing to a varied audience on the history of philosophy. These lectures would form the basis of his book, "A History of Western Philosophy" (1945), a great commercial success which provided him with a steady income for the remainder of his life.
He returned to Britain in 1944 and rejoined the faculty of Trinity College. He was now world famous, even outside of academic circles, and frequently either the subject or author of magazine and newspaper articles, as well as a regular participant in many BBC radio broadcasts. In 1949, he was awarded the Order of Merit and, in 1950, the Nobel Prize for Literature (at least partly on the merit of his "A History of Western Philosophy"). In 1952, Russell divorced his third wife, and soon after the divorce married his fourth wife, Edith Finch, whom he had known since 1925. Edith remained with him until his death, and by all accounts their marriage was a happy, close and loving one.
Russell spent the 1950s and 1960s engaged in various political causes (primarily related to nuclear disarmament, opposition to the Vietnam War and Israeli aggression in the Middle East), in company with several other prominent intellectuals of the time, and became something of a hero among many of the youthful members of the New Left. He published his three-volume autobiography in 1967, 1968 and 1969, and, although frail, he remained lucid and clear thinking up to the day of his death.
Russell died of influenza on 2 February 1970, aged 97, after suddenly falling ill while reading at his home in Penrhyndeudraeth, Merionethshire, Wales. He was cremated at Colwyn Bay and, in accordance with his wishes, there was no religious ceremony. His ashes were scattered over the Welsh mountains later that year.
At the beginning of the 20th Century, Russell along with G. E. Moore and Alfred North Whitehead, was largely responsible for the British "revolt" against the dominant Idealism of G. W. F. Hegel. They strove to eliminate what they saw as meaningless and incoherent assertions in philosophy and sought clarity and precision in argument by the use of exact language and by breaking down philosophical propositions into their simplest grammatical components. Russell, in particular, saw formal Logic and science as the principal tools of the philosopher, and he wanted to end what he saw as the excesses of Metaphysics, adopting William of Ockham's principle against multiplying unnecessary entities (Occam's Razor) as a central part of the method of analysis.
Russell was particularly critical of the doctrine of internal relations (the idea that everything has some relation, however distant, to everything else, so that in order to know any particular thing, we must know all of its relations), a doctrine he ascribed to the Absolute Idealism of G. W. F. Hegel and the Pragmatism of C. S. Peirce. Russell argued that this would make space, time, science and the concept of number not fully intelligible.
Russell had great influence on modern mathematical Logic. His first mathematical book, "An Essay on the Foundations of Geometry" (1897), was heavily influenced by Immanuel Kant, but he soon rejected it completely when he realized that it would have made Albert Einstein's schema of space-time (which he understood to be superior to his own system) impossible.
As a young man, he became very interested in the definition of number (studying the work of George Boole, Georg Cantor and Augustus De Morgan), and followed Gottlob Frege in taking a logicist approach in which Logic was in turn based upon mathematical set theory. In fact, Russell pursued a parallel course to Frege to some extent, and spent several years working on ideas that Frege had, unbeknown to Russell, already addressed. It was only later that Russell became responsible for bringing the largely unknown Frege to the attention of the English-speaking world.
It was with his 1903 work, "The Principles of Mathematics", though, that Russell finally superseded Frege's work. He identified what has come to be known as Russell's Paradox to show that Frege's naive set theory led to a contradiction. The paradox can be stated as the set of things, x, that are such that x is not a member of x, and is sometimes explained by the simplistic (but more easily understood) example, "If a barber shaves all and only those men in the village who do not shave themselves, does he shave himself?". When he found out about this breakthrough, Frege completely abandoned his Logicism.
Russell however, continued to defend Logicism (the view that mathematics is in some important sense reducible to Logic) and, along with his former teacher, Alfred North Whitehead, wrote the monumental three-volume "Principia Mathematica" (the first volume, published in 1910, is largely ascribed to Russell). During the ten years or so that Russell and Whitehead spent on the "Principia", draft after draft was begun and abandoned as Russell constantly re-thought his basic premises. Eventually, Whitehead insisted on publication of the work, even if it was not (and might never be) complete, although they were forced to publish it at their own expense as no commercial publishers would touch it. Perhaps more than any other single work, it established the specialty of mathematical or symbolic logic, and it established Russell's name in the international mathematical and philosophical community. Influential as it was, though, the work fell prey to the 1931 Incompleteness Theorems of Kurt Gödel (1906 - 1978) which pointed out the inherent limitations of all but the most trivial formal systems for arithmetic of mathematical interest.
So, it was only with the effective abandonment of the Principia project, by which time Russell was nearly 40, that he turned away from Logic and towards other aspects of philosophy, where he was to prove himself almost as influential.
Perhaps more than anyone before him, Russell made language (or, more specifically, how we use language), a central part of philosophy. Philosophers such as Ludwig Wittgenstein and the practitioners of Ordinary Language Philosophy were to a large extent amplifying or responding to Russell's earlier ideas (often using many of the techniques that Russell himself originally developed).
His most significant contribution to Philosophy of Language is his theory of descriptions, which he presented in his seminal essay, "On Denoting" (1905). The theory is often illustrated using the phrase "the present King of France" (when France has no king), and Russell's solution was basically to analyze not the term alone but the entire proposition that contained a definite description, and then allow the definite descriptions to be broken apart and treated separately from the predication that is the obvious content of the entire proposition.
Russell's most systematic treatment of philosophical analysis was what he called Logical Atomism, developed in a set of lectures in 1918. He set forth his concept of an ideal, isomorphic language that would mirror the world, whereby our knowledge could be reduced to terms of atomic propositions and their truth-functional compounds. He believed that the world consists of a plurality of logically independent facts, and that our knowledge depends on the data of our direct experience of them. Thus, every meaningful proposition must consist of terms referring directly to objects with which we are acquainted (or they must be defined by other terms referring to objects with which we are acquainted), a kind of radical Empiricism. In time, he came to doubt the value of this theory, and was particularly troubled by the required assumption of isomorphism (a one-to-one relation between two sets, which preserves the relations existing between elements in its domain).
In Epistemology, he distinguished between two ways in which we can be familiar with objects, "knowledge by acquaintance" (our own sense data, momentary perceptions of colours, sounds, etc) and "knowledge by description" (everything else, including the physical objects themselves, which can only be inferred or reasoned to and not known directly). In his later philosophy, however, Russell subscribed to a kind of neutral monism (similar to that held by William James and first formulated by Baruch Spinoza) which maintained that the distinctions between the material and mental worlds were really arbitrary, and that both could be reduced to neutral properties.
Russell remained throughout his life, though, an out-and-out empiricist, in the tradition of Locke and Hume, and he always maintained that the scientific method - knowledge derived from empirical research verified through repeated testing - was the appropriate method of analysis (Scientism), although he believed that science (and philosophy, for that matter) could only reach tentative and piecemeal answers, and that attempts to find organic unities were largely futile. However, the very fact that he made science a central part of his method was instrumental in making the Philosophy of Science a full-blooded separate branch of philosophy, and he greatly influenced both the verificationists in the Logical Positivism movement as well as the falsificationists.
Although Russell wrote on Ethics, being greatly influenced by the Ethical Non-Naturalism of G. E. Moore's "Principia Ethica", he did not believe that Ethics was really a bona fide part of philosophy. In time, however, he abandoned any belief in objective moral values and came to prefer a view closer to the Ethical Subjectivism of David Hume.
For most of his life Russell maintained religion (as well as other systematic ideologies such as Communism) to be little more than superstition, and remained a high profile Atheist (although he did accept the ontological argument for the existence of God for a time during his undergraduate years). He was careful, however, to distinguish between his Atheism as regards certain types of god concepts, and his Agnosticism regarding some other types of superhuman intelligence. He believed that, despite any positive effects it might have, religion was largely harmful to people, serving to impede knowledge, foster fear and dependency, and cause much of the war, oppression and misery that have beset the world.
Russell had a good ear for a well-turned aphorism and among his many quotable quotes are:
- I would never die for my beliefs because I might be wrong.
- Government can easily exist without laws, but law cannot exist without government.
- I shouldn't wish people dogmatically to believe any philosophy, not even mine.
- It has been said that man is a rational animal. All my life I have been searching for evidence which could support this.
- Many people would sooner die than think; in fact, they do so.
- Patriotism is the willingness to kill and be killed for trivial reasons.
- The greatest challenge to any thinker is stating the problem in a way that will allow a solution.
- There is much pleasure to be gained from useless knowledge.
- Whoever wishes to become a philosopher must learn not to be frightened by absurdities.
- War does not determine who is right - only who is left.
- It is undesirable to believe a proposition when there is no ground whatsoever for supposing it is true.
- The point of philosophy is to start with something so simple as not to seem worth stating, and to end with something so paradoxical that no one will believe it.
- A stupid man's report of what a clever man says can never be accurate, because he unconsciously translates what he hears into something he can understand.
See the additional sources and recommended reading list below, or check the philosophy books page for a full list. Whenever possible, I linked to books with my amazon affiliate code, and as an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases. Purchasing from these links helps to keep the website running, and I am grateful for your support!