BERTRAND RUSSELL (May 18th, 1872 – February 2nd, 1970)
British philosopher and logician.
- Author of over 18 books, including The Principles of Mathematics (1903), Why Men Fight (1917), and The Analysis of Mind (1921), along with dozens of essays and articles.
- Made significant contributions to mathematics and logic, including the discovery of Russell’s paradox, the “defence of logicism” argument, the founding of analytic philosophy, and the popularization of predicate calculus, among others.
- Worked with Albert Einstein to write the Russell-Einstein Manifesto in 1955, which argued against the development of nuclear weapons; passionately argued against war and nuclear proliferation throughout his life and was imprisoned for it several times.
- Winner of the Order of Merit in 1949. Also won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1950, “in recognition of his varied and significant writings in which he champions humanitarian ideals and freedom of thought.”
One of the foremost champions of analytic philosophy, Bertrand Russell was an early 20th-century philosopher and pacifist. A prominent social critic, Russell wrote dozens of books, forming a vast bibliography that stands as one of the cornerstones of 20th-century philosophy. Remembered as much for his passionate anti-war stance as for his dedication to and spirited defense of logic, Russell spent nearly a century shaping modern philosophy as we know it.
Bertrand Russell’s childhood was marked by tragedy: although he was born into an upper-class, aristocratic family, he lost both parents and a sister to illness by the time he was five years old. Bertrand and his older brother Frank were left in the care of their paternal grandmother, Countess Russell. In contrast to Russell’s wildly progressive parents, the Countess was a staunchly traditional Victorian woman under whose strict upbringing Bertrand suffered. Despite this, she was also unusually passionate about women’s rights and social justice, and she imparted those views on to her grandson. Her husband, John Russell, had been Prime Minister from 1846-1852, and again from 1865-1866; the Countess attempted to train Bertrand to follow in his grandfather’s footsteps but to no avail.
Russell was primarily homeschooled, but it was not until age 11, when he was introduced to Euclidean geometry by his brother, that he truly began to pursue mathematics and logic; he later described his introduction to Euclid as “one of the great events of my life, as dazzling as first love.” Russell, an unhappy and even suicidal youth, saw mathematics as a means of escape from his stifling upbringing, and he would continue to use it as such throughout the difficulties of his life. Mathematics led over to logic, which in turn led over to religion: Bertrand eventually rebelled against his grandmother’s heavily Christian beliefs, although he expressed difficulty in determining whether he was an atheist or an agnostic. “Sometimes I have said one and sometimes the other,” he lamented, “without any clear principle by which to go.”
In 1890, Russell made for Trinity College, Cambridge, where he graduated and became a Fellow of the college in 1895. While studying at Cambridge, he became acquainted with the secret student group known as the Cambridge Apostles, who convinced Russell to abandon a mathematics career in favor of philosophy. It was also during this time that Russell met his first wife, an American Quaker named Alys Smith. The marriage was not a happy one: they finally divorced in 1921, after a painful two-decade-long separation process.
Russell’s first tract, German Social Democracy, was published in 1896. He studied mathematics at Cambridge and discovered Russell’s paradox in 1901, which proved that Georg Cantor’s naïve set theory led to a natural paradox. His first mathematics text, The Principles of Mathematics, contained the first steps of Russell’s logical philosophy. Inspired by the likes of Cantor, he embraced analytic philosophy, casting aside the popular idealism of the time in favor of logic. Alongside Alfred North Whitehead, Russell wrote the Principia Mathematica, which served to establish a set of logical rules by which both mathematics and philosophy could function. The Principia consisted of a three-volume set; although a fourth volume was planned, Russell and Whitehead were never able to complete it.
In 1911, Russell met two crucial people in his life. The first was Lady Ottoline Morrell, with whom he engaged in a passionate affair that spelled the end of his marriage to Alys. The second was Ludwig Wittgenstein, a brilliant young Austrian philosopher whom Russell took under his wing. Inspired both by his romance with Morrell and his studies with Wittgenstein, Russell abandoned technical philosophy; he later wrote that thanks to Wittgenstein’s criticism of his work, “my impulse was shattered, like a wave dashed to pieces against a breakwater.”
RUSSELL THE PROTESTER
1914 saw the advent of World War 1, and with it arose Russell’s passionate antiwar stance. Two years after the war’s start, Russell’s participation in antiwar protests led to his being fined 110 pounds and dismissed from Trinity College under the Defence of the Realm Act, and two years later he was imprisoned for five months for his protests. Following the war, Russell divorced Alys and married Dora Black, a British feminist author. Again, the marriage did not last; they divorced in 1935 after having two children, John, and Kate Russell. Nevertheless, Russell’s marriage to Dora was a productive one, and it was with her support that he wrote many of his most famous works, including The Theory and Practice of Bolshevism (1920), On Education (1930), and his famous “Why I Am Not A Christian” lecture in 1927.
In 1931 Russell’s brother Frank died, making Bertrand the Earl of Russell. In 1936, he married a third time, this time to Patricia Spence—with whom he had another son, Conrad Russell. Three years later he was appointed a professor of philosophy at the University of California at Los Angeles. Although initially he was opposed to World War II and favored appeasement, he eventually realized that defeating the Nazis was more important than avoiding a world war. Despite this, he was vehemently opposed to nuclear proliferation following the war: in 1955, he worked with Albert Einstein to author the Russell-Einstein Manifesto, which called for nuclear disarmament by major world leaders.
Skirting bankruptcy, Russell was able to turn some of his lectures into a book, A History of Western Philosophy (1945), which became a bestseller and saved Russell’s finances. This was a high point of Russell’s life. He won the Order of Merit in 1949 and the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1950. He was invited to give a series of political lectures by the BBC, and in 1952, he divorced yet again. That same year he married his fourth and final wife, Edith Finch, with whom he stayed happily married until the end of his life.
Russell’s final major philosophical work was Human Knowledge: Its Scope and Limits in 1948; thereafter he worked primarily as a political activist rather than a philosopher. He was firmly opposed to the United States’ participation in the Vietnam War; in 1961, he was imprisoned yet again for a week following his participation in anti-nuclear protests, at the extraordinary age of 89. Russell lived another eight years and finally died of influenza in 1970 at the age of 97.