The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary






Bertrand Russell

Bertrand Russell
Bertrand Russell

Bertrand Arthur William Russell, 3rd Earl Russell (May 18, 1872February 2, 1970) was one of the most influential mathematicians, philosophers, and logicians of the modern age, working mostly in the 20th century. A prolific writer, Russell was also a populariser of philosophy and a commentator on a large variety of topics, ranging from very serious issues to the mostly mundane. Russell's elegant prose, clarity of expression, and biting wit were widely admired. Continuing a family tradition in political affairs, he was an influential libertarian activist for most of his long life. Millions looked up to Russell as a prophet of the creative and rational life; at the same time, his stances on many topics were extremely controversial. Born at the height of Britain's economic and political ascendancy, he died of influenza nearly a century later when Britain's empire had all but vanished, and her power had dissipated in two victorious, but debilitating world wars. As one of the world's most well-known intellectuals, Russell's voice carried enormous moral authority, even into his late nineties. Among his other political activities, Russell was an influential proponent of nuclear disarmament and an outspoken critic of the American war in Vietnam.

In 1950, Russell was made Nobel Laureate in Literature "in recognition of his varied and significant writings in which he champions humanitarian ideals and freedom of thought".


Russell's work on philosophy, logic, and other subjects

Analytic(al) philosophy

Russell is generally recognized as one of the founders of analytic philosophy, indeed, even of its several branches. At the beginning of the 20th Century, alongside G. E. Moore, Russell was largely responsible for the British "revolt against Idealism", a philosophy greatly influenced by Georg Hegel and his British apostle, F. H. Bradley. This revolt was echoed thirty years later in Vienna by the logical positivists' "revolt against metaphysics". Russell was particularly appalled by the idealist doctrine of internal relations, which held that in order to know any particular thing, we must know all of its relations. Russell showed that this would make space, time, science and the concept of number unintelligible. Russell's logical work with Whitehead continued this project.

Russell and Moore strove to eliminate what they saw as meaningless and incoherent assertions in philosophy, and they sought clarity and precision in argument by the use of exact language and by breaking down philosophical propositions into their simplest components. Russell, in particular, saw logic and science as the principal tools of the philosopher. Indeed, unlike most philosophers who preceded him and his early contemporaries, Russell did not believe there was a separate method for philosophy. He believed that the main task of the philosopher was to illuminate the most general propositions about the world and to eliminate confusion. In particular, he wanted to end what he saw as the excesses of metaphysics. Russell adopted William of Occam's principle against multiplying unnecessary entities, Occam's Razor, as a central part of the method of analysis.


Russell's epistemology went through many phases. Once he shed Hegelianism in his early years, Russell remained a philosophical realist for the remainder of his life, believing that our direct experiences have primacy in the acquisition of knowledge. While some of his views have lost favor, his influence lingers on in the distinction between two ways in which we can be familiar with objects: "knowledge by acquaintance" and "knowledge by description." For a time, Russell thought that we could only be acquainted with our own sense data, momentary perceptions of colours, sounds, and the like, and that everything else, including the physical objects that these were sense data of, could only be reasoned to--known by description--and not known directly. This distinction has gained much wider application, though Russell eventually rejected the idea of an intermediate sense datum.

In his later philosophy, Russell subscribed to a kind of neutral monism, maintaining that the distinctions between the material and mental worlds, in the final analysis, were arbitrary, and that both can be reduced to a neutral property, a view similar to one held by the American philosopher, William James, and one that was first formulated by Baruch Spinoza, whom Russell greatly admired. Instead of James' "pure experience," however, Russell characterized the stuff of our initial states of perception as "events."


While Russell wrote a great deal on ethical subject matters, he did not believe that the subject belonged to philosophy or that when he wrote on ethics that he did so in his capacity as a philosopher. In his earlier years, Russell was greatly influenced by G.E. Moore's Principia Ethica. Along with Moore, he then believed that moral facts were objective, but only known through intuition, and that they were simple properties of objects, not equivalent (e.g., pleasure is good) to the natural objects to which they are often ascribed (see Naturalistic fallacy), and that these simple, undefinable moral properties cannot be analyzed using the non-moral properties with which they are associated. In time, however, he came to agree with his philosophical hero, David Hume, who believed that ethical terms dealt with subjective values that cannot be verified in the same way that matters of fact are. Coupled with Russell's other doctrines, this influenced the logical positivists, who formulated the theory of emotivism, which states that ethical propositions (along with those of metaphysics) were essentially meaningless and nonsensical or, at best, little more than expressions of attitudes and preferences. Notwithstanding his influence on them, Russell himself did not construe ethical propositions as narrowly as the positivists, for he believed that ethical considerations are not only meaningful, but that they are a vital subject matter for civil discourse. Indeed, though Russell was often characterized as the patron saint of rationality, he agreed with Hume, who said that reason ought to be subordinate to ethical considerations.

Logical atomism

Perhaps Russell's most systematic, metaphysical treatment of philosophical analysis and his empiricist-centric logicism is evident in what he called Logical atomism, which is explicated in a set of lectures, "The Philosophy of Logical Atomism," which he gave in 1918. In these lectures, Russell sets forth his concept of an ideal, isomorphic language, one that would mirror the world, whereby our knowledge can be reduced to terms of atomic propositions and their truth-functional compounds. Logical atomism is a form of radical empiricism, for Russell believed the most important requirement for such an ideal language is that every meaningful proposition must consist of terms referring directly to the objects with which we are acquainted, or that they are defined by other terms referring to objects with which we are acquainted. Russell excluded certain formal, logical terms such as all, the, is, and so forth, from his isomorphic requirement, but he was never entirely satisfied about our understanding of such terms. One of the central themes of Russell's atomism is that the world consists of logically independent facts, a plurality of facts, and that our knowledge depends on the data of our direct experience of them. In his later life, Russell came to doubt aspects of logical atomism, especially his principle of isomorphism, though he continued to believe that the process of philosophy ought to consist of breaking things down into their simplest components, even though we might not ever fully arrive at an ultimate atomic fact.

Logic and mathematics

Russell was without peer in his contributions to modern mathematical logic. The American logician, Willard Quine, said Russell's work represented the greatest influence on his own work. While subsequent systems have improved upon Russell's work in several areas (though certainly not all), modern logic rests largely on Russell's foundational work in the early part of the 20th Century.

Russell's first mathematical work, An Essay on the Foundations of Geometry, was published in 1897. This work was heavily influenced by Immanuel Kant. Russell soon realized that the conception it laid out would have made Albert Einstein's schema of space-time impossible, which he understood to be superior to his own system. Thenceforth, he rejected the entire Kantian program as it related to mathematics and geometry, and he maintained that his own earliest work on the subject was nearly without value.

Interested in the definition of number, Russell studied the work of George Boole, Georg Cantor, and Augustus de Morgan, and he became convinced that the foundations of mathematics were tied to logic. In 1900 he attended a philosophical congress in Paris where he became familiar with the work of the Italian mathematician, Giuseppe Peano. He mastered Peano's new symbolism and his set of axioms for arithmetic. Peano was able to define logically all of the terms of these axioms with the exception of 0, number, successor, and the singular term, the. Russell took it upon himself to find logical definitions for each of these. He eventually discovered that Gottlob Frege had independently arrived at equivalent definitions for 0, successor, and number, and the definition of number is now usually referred to as the Frege-Russell definition. It was largely Russell who brought Frege to the attention of the English-speaking world.

In 1903, Russell published The Principles of Mathematics, in which the concept of class is inextricably tied to the definition of number. In writing Principles, Russell came across Cantor's proof that there was no greatest cardinal number, which Russell believed was mistaken. This caused him to analyze classes, for it was known that given any number of elements, the number of classes they result in is greater than their number. In turn, this led to the discovery of a very interesting class, namely, the class of all classes, which consists of two kinds of classes: classes that are members of themselves, and classes that are not members of themselves, which led him to find that the so-called principle of extensionality, taken for granted by logicians of the time, was fatally flawed, and that it resulted in a contradiction, whereby Y is a member of Y, if and only if, Y is not a member of Y. This has become known as Russell's Paradox, the solution to which he outlined in an appendix to Principles, and which he later developed into a complete theory, the Theory of types. Aside from exposing a major inconsistency in naive set theory, Russell's work led directly to the creation of modern axiomatic set theory. It also crippled Frege's project of reducing arithmetic to logic. The Theory of Types and much of Russell's subsequent work have also found practical applications with computer science and information technology.

Russell 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 Principia Mathematica, an axiomatic system on which all of mathematics can be built. The first volume of the Principia was published in 1910, which is largely ascribed to Russell. More than any other single work, it established the specialty of mathematical or symbolic logic. Two more volumes were published, but their original plan to incorporate geometry in a fourth volume was never realized, and Russell never felt up to improving the original works, though he referenced new developments and problems in his preface to the second edition. Upon completing the Principia, three volumes of extraordinarily abstract and complex reasoning, Russell was exhausted, and he never felt his intellectual faculties fully recovered from the effort. Although the Principia did not fall prey to the paradoxes in Frege's approach, it was later proven by Kurt Gödel that—for exactly that reason—neither Principia Mathematica nor any other consistent logical system could prove all mathematical truths; hence, Russell's project was necessarily incomplete.

Russell's last significant work in mathematics and logic, Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy, was written, actually, dictated to a secretary, while he was in jail for his anti-war activities during World War I. This was largely an explication of his previous work and its philosophical significance.

Philosophy of language

Russell was not the first philosopher to suggest that language had an important bearing on how we understand the world; however, more than anyone before him, Russell made language, or more specifically, how we use language, a central part of philosophy. Had there been no Russell, it seems unlikely that philosophers such as Ludwig Wittgenstein, Gilbert Ryle, J. L. Austin, and P. F. Strawson, among others, would have embarked upon the same course, for so much of what they did was to amplify or respond, sometimes critically, to what Russell had said before them, using many of the techniques that he originally developed. Russell, along with Moore, shared the idea that clarity of expression is a virtue, a notion that has been a touchstone for philosophers ever since, particularly among those who deal with the philosophy of language.

Perhaps Russell's most significant contribution to philosophy of language is his theory of descriptions, as presented in his seminal essay, On Denoting, first published in 1905, which the mathematician and philosopher Frank Ramsey described as "a paradigm of philosophy." The theory is normally illustrated using the phrase "the present King of France", as in "The present king of France is bald." What object is this proposition about, given that there is not, at present, a king of France? Alexius Meinong had suggested that we must posit a realm of "nonexistent entities" that we can suppose we are referring to when we use expressions such as this; but this would be a strange theory, to say the least. Frege seemed to think we could dismiss as nonsense any proposition whose words apparently referred to objects that didn't exist. Among other things, the problem with this solution is that some such propositions, such as "If the present king of France is bald, then the present king of France has no hair on his head," not only do not seem nonsensical but appear to be obviously true. Roughly the same problem would arise if there were two kings of France at present: which of them does "the king of France" denote?

The problem is general to what are called "definite descriptions." Normally this includes all terms beginning with "the", and sometimes includes names, like "Walter Scott." (This point is quite contentious: Russell sometimes thought that the latter terms shouldn't be called names at all, but only "disguised definite descriptions," but much subsequent work has treated them as altogether different things.) What is the "logical form" of definite descriptions: how, in Frege's terms, could we paraphrase them in order to show how the truth of the whole depends on the truths of the parts? Definite descriptions appear to be like names that by their very nature denote exactly one thing, neither more or less. What, then, are we to say about the proposition as a whole if one of its parts apparently isn't working right?

Russell's solution was, first of all, to analyze not the term alone but the entire proposition that contained a definite description. "The present king of France is bald," he then suggested, can be reworded to "There is an x such that x is a present king of France, nothing other than x is a present king of France, and x is bald." Russell claimed that each definite description in fact contains a claim of existence and a claim of uniqueness which give this appearance, but these can be broken apart and treated separately from the predication that is the obvious content of the proposition. The proposition as a whole then says three things about some object: the definite description contains two of them, and the rest of the sentence contains the other. If the object does not exist, or if it is not unique, then the whole sentence turns out to be false, not meaningless.

One of the major complaints against Russell's theory, due originally to Strawson, is that definite descriptions do not claim that their object exists, they merely presuppose that it does.

Wittgenstein, Russell's student, later achieved even greater prominence in the philosophy of language. Russell thought Wittgenstein's elevation of language as the only reality with which philosophy need be concerned was absurd, and he decried his influence and the influence of his followers, especially members of the so-called Oxford school, who he believed were promoting a kind of mysticism. Russell's belief that there is more to philosophy and knowing the world than simply understanding how we use language has regained prominence in philosophy and eclipsed Wittgenstein's language-centric views.

Philosophy of science

Russell frequently claimed that he was more convinced of his method of doing philosophy, the method of analysis, than of his philosophical conclusions. Science, of course, was one of the principal components of analysis, along with logic and mathematics. While Russell was a believer in the scientific method, knowledge derived from empirical research that is verified through repeated testing, he believed that science reaches only tentative answers, and that scientific progress is piecemeal, and attempts to find organic unities were largely futile. Indeed, he believed the same was true of philosophy. Another founder of modern philosophy of science, Ernst Mach, placed less reliance on method, per se, for he believed that any method that produced predictable results was satisfactory and that the principal role of the scientist was to make successful predictions. While Russell would doubtless agree with this as a practical matter, he believed that the ultimate objective of both science and philosophy was to understand reality, not simply to make predictions.

The fact that Russell made science a central part of his method and of philosophy was instrumental in making the philosophy of science a full-blooded, separate branch of philosophy and an area in which subsequent philosophers specialized. Much of Russell's thinking about science is exposed in his 1914 book, Our Knowledge of the External World as a Field for Scientific Method in Philosophy. Among the several schools that were influenced by Russell were the logical positivists, particularly Rudolph Carnap, who maintained that the distinguishing feature of scientific propositions was their verifiability. This contrasted with the theory of Karl Popper, also greatly influenced by Russell, who believed that their importance rested in the fact that they were potentially falsifiable.

It is worth noting that outside of his strictly philosophical pursuits, Russell was always fascinated by science, particularly of physics, and he even authored several popular science books, The ABC of Atoms (1923) and The ABC of Relativity (1925).

Religion and theology

Russell's ethical outlook and his personal courage in facing controversies were certainly informed by his religious upbringing, principally by his paternal grandmother, who instructed him with the Biblical injunction, "Thou shalt not follow a multitude to do evil" (Exodus 23:2), something he said influenced him throughout his life.

For most of his adult life, however, Russell thought it very unlikely that there was a God, and he maintained that religion is little more than superstition and, despite any positive effects that religion might have, it is largely harmful to people. He believed religion and the religious outlook (he considered communism and other systematic ideologies to be species of religion) serve to impede knowledge, foster fear and dependency, and are responsible for much of the war, oppression, and misery that have beset the world. Technically, Russell was an agnostic, though he said that he was an atheist from a practical perspective.

As a young man, Russell had a decidedly religious bent, himself, as is evident in his early Platonism. He longed for eternal truths, as he makes clear in his famous essay, A Free Man's Worship, widely regarded as a masterpiece in prose, but one that Russell came to dislike. While he rejected the supernatural, he freely admitted that he yearned for a deeper meaning to life.

Russell's views on religion can be found in his popular book, Why I Am Not a Christian: And Other Essays on Religion and Related Subjects (ISBN 0671203231), which began as a talk given March 6, 1927 at Battersea Town Hall, under the auspices of the South London Branch of the National Secular Society, England. The speech was published later that year as a pamphlet, which, along with other essays, was eventually published as a book. In the book, Russell considers a number of logical arguments for the existence of God, including the first cause argument, the natural-law argument, the argument from design, and moral arguments. He also goes into specifics about Christian theology.

His final conclusion:

Religion is based, I think, primarily and mainly upon fear. It is partly the terror of the unknown and partly, as I have said, the wish to feel that you have a kind of elder brother who will stand by you in all your troubles and disputes. ... A good world needs knowledge, kindliness, and courage; it does not need a regretful hankering after the past or a fettering of the free intelligence by the words uttered long ago by ignorant men.

Influence on philosophy

It would be difficult to overstate Russell's influence on modern philosophy, especially in the English-speaking world. While others were also influential, notably, Frege, Moore, and Wittgenstein, more than any other person, Russell made analysis the dominant approach to philosophy. Moreover, he is the founder or, at the very least, the prime mover of its major branches and themes, including several versions of the philosophy of language, formal logical analysis, and the philosophy of science. The various analytic movements throughout the last century all owe something to Russell's earlier works.

Russell's influence on individual philosophers is singular, and perhaps most notably in the case of Ludwig Wittgenstein, who was his student between 1911 and 1914. It should also be observed that Wittgenstein exerted considerable influence on Russell, especially in leading him to conclude, much to his regret, that mathematical truths were trivial, tautological truths. Evidence of Russell's influence on Wittegenstein can be seen throughout the Tractatus, which Russell was responsible for having published. Russell also helped to secure Wittgenstein's doctorate and a faculty position at Cambridge, along with several fellowships along the way. However, as previously stated, he came to disagree with Wittgenstein's later approach to philosophy, while Wittgenstein came to think of Russell as "superficial and glib," particularly in his popular writings. Russell's influence is also evident in the work of A. J. Ayer, Rudolph Carnap, Kurt Gödel, Karl Popper, W. V. Quine, and a number of other philosophers and logicians.

Some see Russell's influence as mostly negative, primarily those who have been critical of Russell's emphasis on science and logic, the consequent diminishment of metaphysics, and of his insistence that ethics lies outside of philosophy. Russell's admirers and detractors are often more acquainted with his pronouncements on social and political matters, or what some (e.g., Ray Monk) have called his "journalism," than they are with his technical, philosophical work. Among non-philosophers, there is a marked tendency to conflate these matters, and to judge Russell the philosopher on what he himself would certainly consider to be his non-philosophical opinions. Russell often cautioned people to make this distinction.

Russell left a large assortment of writing. Since adolescence, Russell wrote about 3,000 words a day, in long hand, with relatively few corrections; his first draft nearly always was his last draft, even on the most complex, technical matters. His previously unpublished work is an immense treasure trove, and scholars are continuing to gain new insights into Russell's thought.

Russell's activism

Political and social activism occupied much of Russell's time for most of his long life, which makes his prodigious and seminal writing on a wide range of technical and non-technical subjects all the more remarkable.

As a young man, Russell was a member of the Liberal Party and wrote in favor of free trade and women's suffrage. In his 1910 pamphlet, Anti-Suffragist Anxieties, Russell wrote that some men opposed suffrage because they "fear that their liberty to act in ways that are injurious to women will be curtailed." In 1907 he was nominated by the National Union of Suffrage Societies to run for Parliament in a by-election, which he lost by a wide margin.

While never a complete pacifist, Russell opposed British participation in World War I and, as a result, he was first fined, then lost his professorship at Trinity College, Cambridge, and was later imprisoned for six months. Russell called his stance "Relative Pacifism"— he held that war was always a great evil, but in some particularly extreme circumstances (such as when Adolf Hitler threatened to take over Europe) it might be a lesser of multiple evils. In the years leading to World War II, he supported the policy of appeasement; but by 1941 he acknowledged that in order to preserve democracy, Hitler had to be defeated.

Russell visited the Soviet Union and met Lenin in 1920. In a tract, The Practice and Theory of Bolshevism, he wrote "Bolshevism deserves the gratitude and admiration of all the progressive part of mankind". The tract was reissued in a censored form in 1949. He was unimpressed with the result of the communist revolution, and said he was "infinitely unhappy in this atmosphere -- stifled by its utilitarianism, its indifference to love and beauty and the life of impulse." He believed Lenin to be similar to a religious zealot, cold and possessed of "no love of liberty."

Politically, Russell envisioned a kind of benevolent, democratic socialism, not unlike the conception promoted by the Fabian Society. He was extremely critical of the totalitarianism exhibited by Stalin's regime, and of Marxism and communism, generally.

Russell was in favor of eugenics, and together with other left-wing British intellectuals endorsed the fashionable idea with rare enthusiasm. Thee might observe incidentally that if the state paid for child-bearing it might and ought to require a medical certificate that the parents were such as to give a reasonable result of a healthy child -- this would afford a very good inducement to some sort of care for the race, and gradually as public opinion became educated by the law, it might react on the law and make that more stringent, until one got to some state of things in which there would be a little genuine care for the race, instead of the present haphazard higgledy-piggledy ways.

Russell wrote against Victorian notions of morality. His early writings expressed his opinion that sex between a man and woman who are not married to each other is not necessarily immoral if they truly love one another. This might not seem extreme by today's standards, but it was enough to raise vigorous protests and denunciations against him during his first visit to the United States. Russell's private life was even more unconventional and freewheeling than his published writings revealed, but that was not yet well known at the time. For example, philosopher Sidney Hook reports that Russell often spoke of his sexual prowess and of his various conquests.

On November 20, 1948, in a public speech at Westminster School, addressing a gathering arranged by the New Commonwealth, Russell shocked some observers by suggesting that a preemptive nuclear strike on the Soviet Union is justified. Russell argued that war between the United States and the Soviet Union seemed inevitable, so it would be a humanitarian gesture to get it over with quickly and have the United States in the dominant position. Currently, Russell argued, humanity could survive such a war, whereas a full nuclear war after both sides had manufactured large stockpiles of more destructive weapons was likely to result in the extinction of the human race. Russell later relented from this stance, instead arguing for mutual disarmament by the nuclear powers.

Starting in the 1950s, Russell became a vocal opponent of nuclear weapons. With the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, he released the Russell-Einstein Manifesto with Albert Einstein and organized several conferences. In 1961, when he was in his late eighties, he was imprisoned for a week in connection with his nuclear disarmament protest at Hyde Park and for inciting civil disobedience. He opposed the Vietnam War and, along with Jean-Paul Sartre, he organized a tribunal intended to expose U.S. war crimes; this came to be known as the Russell Tribunal.

The Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation began work in 1963, in order to carry forward his work for peace, human rights and social justice.

Russell was an early critic of the official story in the John F. Kennedy assassination; his "16 Questions on the Assassination" from 1964 is still considered a good summary of the apparent inconsistencies in that case.

Russell remained politically active to the end, writing and exhorting world leaders and lending his name to various causes. Some maintain that during his last few years he gave his youthful followers too much license and that they used his name for some outlandish purposes that a more attentive Russell would not have approved. There is evidence to show that he became aware of this when he fired his private secretary, Ralph Shoenmann, then a young firebrand of the radical left.

Russell's life

A young Russell
A young Russell

Bertrand Russell was from an aristocratic English family. His paternal grandfather, Lord John Russell, had been Prime Minister in the 1840s, and was the second son of the 6th Duke of Bedford. The Russells had been prominent for several centuries in Britain, and were one of Britain's leading Whig / Liberal families. Russell's mother, Viscountess Amberley (who died when he was 2), was also from an aristocratic family, and was the sister of Rosalind Howard, Countess of Carlisle. His parents were quite radical for their times. Russell's father, Viscount Amberley (who died when Bertrand was 4), was an atheist, and, among other things, consented to his wife's affair with their children's tutor, the biologist Douglas Spalding. His godfather was the Utilitarian philosopher, John Stuart Mill. His early years were spent at Pembroke Lodge in Richmond Park.

After his parents' premature deaths, Russell and his older brother, Frank, the future 2nd Earl, were raised by their staunchly Victorian grandparents, Lord Russell, the former Prime Minister, and his second wife, the Countess Russell, nee Lady Frances Elliot. Russell also had a sister who died when he was an infant. Russell's childhood was very lonely and he often contemplated suicide. He remarked in his autobiography that only his keen interest in mathematics and his fascination with masturbation seemed to keep him interested in living. 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 to Euclid, which transformed Russell's life. Russell was primarily raised by his grandmother, who was quite religious, and her influence on his outlook on social justice and standing up for principle remained with him throughout his life.

Russell first met the American Quaker, Alys Pearsall Smith, when he was seventeen years old. He fell in love with the puritanical, high-minded Alys, who was connected to several educationists and religious activists, and, contrary to his grandmother's wishes, he married her in December 1894. Their marriage was ended by separation in 1911 when Russell realized he no longer loved her. Alys pined for him for years and continued to love Russell for the rest of her life. During this period, Russell had passionate affairs with, among others, Lady Ottoline Morrell (half-sister of the 6th Duke of Portland) and the actress Lady Constance Malleson.

Russell studied philosophy and logic at Cambridge University, starting in 1890, where he became acquainted with the younger G.E. Moore, and where he later came under the influence of Alfred North Whitehead. He quickly distinguished himself in mathematics and philosophy.

Russell began his published work in 1896 with German Social Democracy, a study in politics, an early indication of an interest in political and social theory, areas that would attract his attention for the rest of his life.

He became a fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge in 1908. Shortly thereafter he first met the very unusual Ludwig Wittgenstein, whose genius he immediately recognized. He spent hours dealing with Wittgenstein's various phobias and his frequent bouts of despair. The latter was often a drain on Russell's energy, but he continued to be fascinated by him and encouraged his academic development. The first of three volumes of Principia Mathematica was published in 1910, which soon made Russell world famous.

During WWI, Russell engaged in pacifist activities that eventually landed him in jail (see section above on his activism), and in 1916 he was dismissed from Trinity College following his conviction under the Defence of the Realm Act. In 1920, Russell travelled to Russia and subsequently lectured in Peking on philosophy for one year. In 1921, he divorced Alys and married Dora Black. Their children were John Conrad Russell (who briefly succeeded his father as 4th Earl Russell) and Lady Katherine Russell (now Lady Katherine Tait). Russell supported himself during this time by writing popular books explaining matters of physics, ethics and education to the layman. Together with Dora, he also founded the experimental Beacon Hill School in 1927.

Upon the death of his elder brother Frank, in 1931, Russell became 3rd Earl Russell. He once said that his title was primarily useful for securing hotel rooms and the like.

An old Russell
An old Russell

Russell's marriage to Dora grew increasingly tenuous, and it reached a breaking point over her adultery with an American journalist. In 1936, he took as his third wife, an Oxford undergraduate named Patricia ("Peter") Spence. She had been his children's governess in the summer of 1930. Russell and Peter had one son, Conrad.

In the spring of 1939, Russell moved to Santa Barbara to lecture at the University of California, Los Angeles. He was appointed professor at the City College of New York shortly thereafter, but after public outcries, the appointment was annulled by the courts: his radical opinions made him "morally unfit" to teach at the college. The protest was originated by the mother of a student who would not even have been eligible for his graduate-level course in abstract, mathematical logic. Many intellectuals, led by John Dewey, protested his treatment. He soon joined the Barnes Foundation as a lecturer, whereupon he began work on The History of Western Philosophy. His relationship with the Foundation soon soured. He returned to Britain in 1944 and he rejoined the faculty of Trinity College.

In 1949, Russell was awarded the Order of Merit. The following year, he received the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Russell's eldest son, John, suffered from serious mental illness, which was often the source of ongoing problems between Russell and John's mother, Russell's former wife, Dora.

During the 1950s, Russell participated in a series of interviews with the BBC on various topical and philosophical subjects. By this time in his life, Russell was world famous outside of academic circles, frequently the subject or author of magazine and newspaper articles, and was called upon to offer up opinions on a wide variety of subjects, even mundane ones. Along with Einstein, Russell had reached a kind of superstar status as an intellectual.

In 1952, Russell divorced Peter, with whom he had been very unhappy, and he married his fourth wife, Edith Finch. They had known each other since 1925. Edith had lectured in English at Bryn Mawr College, near Philadelphia. Edith remained with him until his death, and, by all accounts, their relationship was very close and loving throughout their marriage.

Russell spent the 1950s and 1960s engaged in various political causes, primarily related to nuclear disarmament and opposing the Vietnam War. He wrote a great many letters to world leaders during this period. He also became a hero to many of the youthful members of the New Left. During the 1960s, in particular, Russell became increasingly vocal about his disapproval of the American government's policies.

Bertrand Russell wrote his three volume autobiography in the late 1960s. While he grew increasingly frail, he remained lucid until the end, when, in 1970, he died in his home in Plas Penrhyn, Wales. His ashes were scattered over the Welsh mountains.

He was succeeded in his titles by his son John (by his marriage to Dora), and then by his younger son (by his third marriage to Peter), Conrad Russell (1936-2004), a respected historian. Conrad Russell was, in turn, succeeded by his son and Russell's grandson, Nicholas Russell (born 1968), who is now the 6th Earl Russell.

Russell summing up his life

Admitting to failure in helping the world to conquer war and in winning his perpetual intellectual battle for eternal truths, Russell wrote this in Reflections on my Eightieth Birthday, which also served as the last entry in the last volume of his autobiography, published in his 97th year:

I have lived in the pursuit of a vision, both personal and social. Personal: to care for what is noble, for what is beautiful, for what is gentle; to allow moments of insight to give wisdom at more mundane times. Social: to see in imagination the society that is to be created, where individuals grow freely, and where hate and greed and envy die because there is nothing to nourish them. These things I believe, and the world, for all its horrors, has left me unshaken.

Comments by others about Russell

As a man

"Bertrand Russell would not have wished to be called a saint of any description; but he was a great and good man." A.J. Ayer, Bertrand Russell, NY: Viking Press, 1972.

As a philosopher

"It is difficult to overstate the extent to which Russell's thought dominated twentieth century analytic philosophy: virtually every strand in its development either originated with him or was transformed by being transmitted through him. Analytic philosophy itself owes its existence more to Russell than to any other philosopher." Nicholas Griffen, The Cambridge Companion to Bertrand Russell, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

As a writer and his place in history

"Russell's prose has been compared by T.S. Eliot to that of David Hume's. I would rank it higher, for it had more color, juice, and humor. But to be lucid, exciting and profound in the main body of one's work is a combination of virtues given to few philosophers. Bertrand Russell has achieved immortality by his philosophical writings." Sidney Hook, Out of Step, An Unquiet Life in the 20th Century, NY: Carol & Graff, 1988.

As a mathematician and logician

Of the Principia: "...its enduring value was simply a deeper understanding of the central concepts of mathematics and their basic laws and interrelationships. Their total translatability into just elementary logic and a simple familiar two-place predicate, membership, is of itself a philosophical sensation." W.V. Quine, From Stimulus to Science, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995. Also regarding the Principia: "This is the book that has meant the most to me." from a blurb by Quine on Principia Mathematica to *56, an abridged version of the Principia, A.N. Whitehead and Bertrand Russell, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1962.

As an activist

"Oh, Bertrand Russell! Oh, Hewlett Johnson! Where, oh where, was your flaming conscience at that time?" Alexandr I. Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipeligo, Harper & Row, 1974

From a daughter

"He was the most fascinating man I have ever known, the only man I ever loved, the greatest man I shall ever meet, the wittiest, the gayest, the most charming. It was a privilege to know him and I thank God he was my father." Katherine Tait, My Father Bertrand Russell, NY: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1975.

Further reading

Selected bibliography of Russell's works by year of publication

  • 1896 German Social Democracy, London: Longmans, Green.
  • 1897 An Essay on the Foundations of Geometry, Cambridge: At the University Press.
  • 1903 The Principles of Mathematics, Cambridge: At the University Press.
  • 1910 Philosophical Essays, London: Logmans, Green.
  • 1910-1913 Principia Mathematica (with Alfred North Whitehead), Cambridge: At the University Press.
  • 1912 The Problems of Philosophy, London: William and Norgate.
  • 1914 Our Knowledge of the External World as a Field for Scientific Method in Philosophy, London: The Open Court Publishing Company.
  • 1916 Principles of Social Reconstruction, London: George Allen & Unwin.
  • 1918 Mysticism and Logic and Other Essays, London: Longmans, Green.
  • 1918 Roads to Freedom: Socialism, Anarchism, and Syndicalism, London: George Allen & Unwin.
  • 1919 Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy, London: George Allen & Unwin.
  • 1920 The Analysis of Mind, London: George Allen & Unwin.
  • 1923 The ABC of Relativity, London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner.
  • 1926 On Education, Especially in Early Childhood, London: George Allen & Unwin.
  • 1927 The Analysis of Matter, London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner.
  • 1927 An Outline of Philosophy, London, George Allen & Unwin.
  • 1927 Why I Am Not A Christian, London: Watts.
  • 1929 Marriage and Morals, London: George Allen & Unwin.
  • 1930 The Conquest of Happiness, London: George Allen & Unwin.
  • 1931 The Scientific Outlook, London: George Allen & Unwin.
  • 1935 Religion and Science, London: Thornton Butterworth.
  • 1938 Power: A New Social Analysis, London: George Allen & Unwin.
  • 1940 An Inquiry into Meaning and Truth, London: George Allen & Unwin.
  • 1945 , New York: Simon and Schuster.
  • 1948 Human Knowledge: Its Scope and Limits, London: George Allen & Unwin.
  • 1950 Unpopular Essays, London: George Allen & Unwin.
  • 1954 Human Society in Ethics and Politics, London: George Allen & Unwin.
  • 1956 Portraits from Memory and Other Essays, London: George Allen & Unwin.
  • 1967 War Crimes in Vietnam, London: George Allen & Unwin.
  • 1967-1969 The Autobiography of Bertrand Russell, Volumes 1, 2 & 3, London: George Allen & Unwin.

Note: this is a mere sampling, for Russell authored many more books and articles, even some fiction. His works also can be found in any number of anthologies and collections, perhaps most notably, the Collected Papers of Bertrand Russell, which McMaster University began publishing in 1980. This collection of his shorter and previously unpublished works is now up to 14 volumes, and many more are forthcoming. An additional 3 volumes catalogue just his bibliography. The Russell Archives at McMaster also has more than 40,000 letters that he wrote.

Books about Russell's philosophy

  • Bertrand Russell: Critical Assessments, edited by A.D. Irvine, consisting of essays on Russell's work by many distinguished philosophers, 4 vols, London: Routledge, 1999.
  • Theories of Truth, by Richard L. Kirkham (1992). Chapter 4 includes a detailed discussion of Russell's theory of truth.
  • Bertrand Russell, John Slater, Thoemmes Press, 1994.
  • The Philosophy of Bertrand Russell, edited by P.A. Schlipp, Chicago, 1944.

Biographical books

External links

Online writings


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