Bertrand Russell

The British mathematician, philosopher, and social reformer Bertrand Arthur William Russell, 3d Earl Russell (1872-1970), made original and decisive contributions to logic and mathematics and wrote with distinction in all fields of philosophy.

Bertrand Russell was born at Ravenscroft, Monmouthshire, Wales, on May 18, 1872, into an aristocratic family with many distinguished and some eccentric members. By the time he was 4 years old, his parents were dead, and his paternal grandparents, overturning his parents' will specifying that the child be reared by two atheist friends, became his guardians. Russell's grandfather, Lord John Russell, twice prime minister to Queen Victoria, died 3 years later, and young Bertrand was left in the care of his grandmother, a lady of strict puritanical moral views who nevertheless gave him great affection and "that feeling of safety that children need."


Early Life and Education

Russell's early education was provided at home by tutors, and in retrospect he found his childhood a happy one. In adolescence, however, he experienced intense loneliness, relieved by "one of the great events of my life, as dazzling as first love." His brother introduced him to the Elements of Euclid. "I had not imagined there was anything so delicious in the world. From that moment until [Alfred North] Whitehead and I finished Principia Mathematica, when I was 38, mathematics was my chief interest and my chief source of happiness."

At Trinity College

When he was 18 years old, Russell entered Trinity College, Cambridge. Alfred North Whitehead was the first to sense Russell's extraordinary talent, and he quickly undertook to sponsor Russell among the Cambridge literati. In his second year at Cambridge Russell was elected to the Apostles, a weekly discussion group that since 1820 has included among its members many of the people of intellectual eminence at Cambridge. There he met and formed close friendships with, among others, G. Lowes Dickinson, G. E. Moore, and John McTaggart, and a little later with John Maynard Keynes and Lytton Strachey. Of his generation at Cambridge, Russell later wrote, "We believed in ordered progress by means of politics and free discussion."

After graduation Russell stayed on at Cambridge as a fellow of Trinity College and lecturer in philosophy. In 1916 he was dismissed because of a scandal over his conviction and fine for writing about the case of a conscientious objector in World War I. His association with Cambridge meant a great deal to Russell, and he was deeply wounded by its abrupt termination.

First Marriage and Mathematical Writings

In 1894, after overcoming the opposition of his family, Russell married an American girl, Alys Pearsall Smith. The first years of their marriage were largely spent traveling in Europe and in the United States, where Russell gave some lectures. From this period his first book, comprising a set of lectures on German socialism, and his fellowship dissertation, An Essay on the Foundations of Geometry, date. The latter work established Russell's reputation. The year 1900 was another turning point for Russell, for at the International Congress of Philosophy, he met Giuseppe Peano, the Italian mathematical theorist, and immediately saw the significance of Peano's work. Enormously stimulated, he began to rethink his own ideas about the fundamental notions of mathematics, and during the fall of 1900 he finished most of his first major work, The Principles of Mathematics. "Intellectually," he later wrote, "this was the highest point of my life."

A few years later Russell's views on mathematics deepened further, and he became "reluctantly convinced" that mathematics consists of tautologies. With Whitehead he undertook the enormous project of trying to show that mathematics—in particular, arithmetic, but in principle, all mathematics—was an extension of logic, that no underived concepts and no unproved assumptions need be introduced other than those of pure logic. The results were published as Principia Mathematica in three volumes (1910-1913). Russell and Whitehead each had to put up £50 toward publication costs. In spite of mistakes and later improvements, the work remains a landmark in the history of mathematics.

While serving a 6-month prison term in 1918 for writing an article about the British government and the American army that was judged libelous, Russell wrote his Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy. But Russell's interest was deflected from these abstract topics by the "vast suffering" caused by World War I; in the face of this tragedy his earlier work now seemed to him "thin and rather trivial." Increasingly thereafter, Russell's work showed a marked reformist bent. Seldom, indeed, has a philosopher shown such a sense of social responsibility.


Theory of Knowledge and Metaphysics

Russell's views in epistemology and metaphysics, though influential, show less originality than his work on logic and on social questions. His views in these fields constitute, in effect, refinements or further developments in the tradition of British empiricism. Following a principle that he called the supreme maxim in scientific philosophy, "Wherever possible substitute constructions out of known entities for inferences to unknown entities," Russell argued that one's own private sense-data were the things most directly known. In Our Knowledge of the External World Russell tried to show that physical objects are logical constructions out of actual and possible sense-data. In his Analysis of Mind (1921) Russell went still further to argue that from sense-data, regarded as neutral elements, one can construct both mind and matter.

In his Inquiry into Meaning and Truth and Human Knowledge: Its Scope and Limits, Russell offered provocative opinions about the ways truth claims can be assessed, and he outlined a set of principles for use in defending the validity of inductive reasoning.

Travel and Controversy

After World War I Russell visited China and the Soviet Union. Initially sympathetic to the Bolshevik Revolution, he quickly saw its threat to the value he prized above all others—liberty—and he wrote a book, The Practice and Theory of Bolshevism, that proved prophetic regarding the developing course of the Russian Revolution. Russell also stood three times for election to Parliament, each time unsuccessfully.

In 1927, with his second wife, Dora, Russell founded a progressive school at Beacon Hill. There he tested the educational theories propounded in his books Education Especially in Early Childhood and Education and the Social Order (1932).

In the late 1930s Russell lectured frequently in the United States, and in 1940 he was appointed to teach at the College of the City of New York. Immediately he was subjected to a barrage of criticism in the American press by clergymen and city officials. These worthies had been offended by Russell's advocacy, in Marriage and Morals (1929), of temporary marriages for college students. A New York Supreme Court judge voided Russell's appointment on the grounds that he was an alien and an advocate of sexual immorality.

In the wake of this scandal Russell was offered a lectureship by the Barnes Foundation in Merion, Pa. The lectures prepared for this position formed the basis of Russell's History of Western Philosophy (1945), perhaps his most widely circulated book. However, in 1943 Russell was summarily dismissed from his Barnes post under circumstances that enabled him to bring a successful suit for redress of grievances.


Radical Sage

In 1944 Russell returned to England and was reelected a fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge. Honors began to pour in upon him. He was made an honorary fellow of the British Academy in 1949, and in the same year he received the Order of Merit. In 1950 Russell won the Nobel Prize for literature, being cited for "his many-sided and significant writings, in which he appeared as the champion of humanity and freedom of thought."

Russell had abandoned his pacifism at the outset of World War II, but immediately thereafter he resumed his activities in the peace movement. He led the "Ban the Bomb" fight in England, taking part in a sit-down demonstration at the age of 89, for which he served a 7-day jail sentence. Russell tried to intervene in the Cuban missile crisis, and he vigorously opposed American involvement in Vietnam.

Russell was an essentially shy man, yet brilliant and witty in conversation. He had a remarkable capacity for friendship. Though unhappy in his first three marriages, he finally found, late in life, "ecstasy and peace" in his fourth marriage, to Edith Finch in 1952. Although frail in appearance, he was vigorous and active throughout most of his life, embroiled in social and political controversies to the very end. He died at Penrhyndendraeth, Wales, on Feb. 2, 1970.

Further Reading on Bertrand Arthur William Russell

Perhaps the most useful introduction to Russell's work is his Basic Writings, 1903-1959, edited by Robert E. Egner and Lester E. Dennon (1961), and his My Philosophical Development (1959). The most interesting accounts of his life are by Russell himself: a half-dozen earlier autobiographical essays were crowned by his The Autobiography of Bertrand Russell (3 vols., 1967-1969). Biographies include Alan T. Wood, Bertrand Russell: The Passionate Sceptic (1957), and Herbert Gottschalk, Bertrand Russell: A Life (1965). Russell published a great deal, and critical commentary on his work is considerable. An excellent bibliography is in Paul Schilpp, ed., The Philosophy of Bertrand Russell (1944; rev. ed., 2 vols., 1963), which also includes a large number of critical essays by eminent authors together with Russell's replies.