|Bertrand Arthur William Russell, 3rd Earl Russell
|18 May 1872
Trellech, Monmouthshire, Wales
|2 February 1970
|Ethics, epistemology, logic, mathematics, philosophy of language, philosophy of science, religion
|Logical atomism, knowledge by acquaintance and knowledge by description, Russell's paradox, Russell's teapot.
|Leibniz, Hume, G.E. Moore, Frege, Whitehead, Wittgenstein, Mill
|Wittgenstein, A. J. Ayer, Rudolf Carnap, Kurt Gödel, Karl Popper, W. V. Quine, N. Chomsky
Bertrand Arthur William Russell, 3rd Earl Russell OM FRS (18 May 1872 – 2 February 1970), was a British philosopher, logician, and mathematician. A prolific writer, he was also a populariser of philosophy and a commentator on a large variety of topics, ranging from very serious issues to the mundane. Continuing a family tradition in political affairs, he was a prominent anti-war activist for most of his long life, championing free trade between nations and anti-imperialism. 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.
Russell was born at the height of Britain's economic and political ascendancy. He died of influenza nearly a century later, at a time when the British Empire had all but vanished, its power dissipated by two debilitating world wars. As one of the world's best-known intellectuals, Russell's voice carried great moral authority, even into his mid 90s. Among his political activities, Russell was a vigorous proponent of nuclear disarmament and an outspoken critic of the American war in Vietnam.
In 1950, Russell was made a Nobel Laureate in Literature, "in recognition of his varied and significant writings in which he champions humanitarian ideals and freedom of thought".
Bertrand Russell was born on 18 May 1872 at Trellech, Monmouthshire, in Wales, into an aristocratic English family.
His paternal grandfather, John Russell, 1st Earl Russell, had been the British Prime Minister in the 1840s and 1860s, and was the second son of John Russell, 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 Kate (née Stanley) was also from an aristocratic family, and was the sister of Rosalind Howard, Countess of Carlisle. Russell's parents were quite radical for their times—Russell's father, Viscount Amberley, was an atheist and consented to his wife's affair with their children's tutor, the biologist Douglas Spalding. Both were early advocates of birth control at a time when this was considered scandalous. John Stuart Mill, the Utilitarian philosopher, was Russell's godfather.
Russell had two siblings: Frank (nearly seven years older than Bertrand), and Rachel (four years older). In June 1874 Russell's mother died of diphtheria, followed shortly by Rachel, and in January 1876 his father also died of bronchitis following a long period of depression. Frank and Bertrand were placed in the care of their staunchly Victorian grandparents, who lived at Pembroke Lodge in Richmond Park. The first Earl Russell died in 1878, and his widow the Countess Russell (née Lady Frances Elliot) was the dominant family figure for the rest of Russell's childhood and youth. The countess was from a Scottish Presbyterian family, and successfully petitioned a British court to set aside a provision in Amberley's will requiring the children to be raised as agnostics. Despite her religious conservatism, she held progressive views in other areas (accepting Darwinism and supporting Irish Home Rule), and her influence on Bertrand Russell's outlook on social justice and standing up for principle remained with him throughout his life. However, the atmosphere at Pembroke Lodge was one of frequent prayer, emotional repression and formality - Frank reacted to this with open rebellion, but the young Bertrand learned to hide his feelings.
Russell's adolescence was very lonely, and he often contemplated suicide. He remarked in his autobiography that his keenest interests were in sex, religion and mathematics, and 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 to Euclid, which transformed Russell's life.
Russell won a scholarship to read mathematics at Trinity College, Cambridge University, and commenced his studies there in 1890. 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. He quickly distinguished himself in mathematics and philosophy, graduating with a B.A. in the former subject in 1893 and adding a fellowship in the latter in 1895.
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 began to fall apart in 1902 when Russell realised he no longer loved her; they divorced nineteen years later. During this period, Russell had passionate (and often simultaneous) affairs with, among others, Lady Ottoline Morrell and the actress, Lady Constance Malleson. Alys pined for him for these years and continued to love Russell for the rest of her life.
Russell began his published work in 1896 with German Social Democracy, a study in politics that was an early indication of a lifelong interest in political and social theory. In 1896, he taught German social democracy at the London School of Economics, where he also lectured on the science of power in the autumn of 1937. He was also a member of the Coefficients dining club of social reformers set up in 1902 by the Fabian campaigners Sidney and Beatrice Webb.
Russell became a fellow of the Royal Society in 1908. The first of three volumes of Principia Mathematica (written with Whitehead) was published in 1910, which (along with the earlier The Principles of Mathematics) soon made Russell world famous in his field. In 1911, he became acquainted with the Austrian engineering student Ludwig Wittgenstein, whom he viewed as a genius and a successor who would continue his work on logic. 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, including the publication of Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus in 1922.
During the first World War, Russell engaged in pacifist activities, and, in 1916, he was dismissed from Trinity College following his conviction under the Defence of the Realm Act. A later conviction resulted in six months' imprisonment in Brixton prison (see
In 1920, Russell travelled to Russia as part of an official delegation sent by the British government to investigate the effects of the Russian Revolution. Russell's lover Dora Black also visited Russia independently at the same time - she was enthusiastic about the revolution, but Russell's experiences destroyed his previous tentative support for it.
Russell subsequently lectured in Beijing on philosophy for one year, accompanied by Dora. While in China, Russell became gravely ill with pneumonia, and incorrect reports of his death were published in the Japanese press. When the couple visited Japan on their return journey, Dora notified journalists that "Mr Bertrand Russell, having died according to the Japanese press, is unable to give interviews to Japanese journalists".
On the couple's return to England in 1921, Dora was five months pregnant, and Russell arranged a hasty divorce from Alys, marrying Dora six days after the divorce was finalised. Their children were John Conrad Russell, 4th Earl Russell and Katharine Jane Russell (now Lady Katharine 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. After he left the school in 1932, Dora continued it until 1943.
Upon the death of his elder brother Frank, in 1931, Russell became the 3rd Earl Russell. He once said that his title was primarily useful for securing hotel rooms.
Russell's marriage to Dora grew increasingly tenuous, and it reached a breaking point over her having two children with an American journalist, Griffin Barry. In 1936, he took as his third wife an Oxford undergraduate named Patricia ("Peter") Spence, who had been his children's governess since the summer of 1930. Russell and Peter had one son, Conrad Sebastian Robert Russell, later to become a prominent historian, and one of the leading figures in the Liberal Democrat party.
After the Second World War, Russell taught at the University of Chicago, later moving on to Santa Barbara to lecture at the University of California, Los Angeles. He was appointed professor at the City College of New York in 1940, but after a public outcry the appointment was annulled by a court judgement: his opinions (especially those relating to sexual morality, detailed in Marriage and Morals ten years earlier) made him "morally unfit" to teach at the college. The protest was started by the mother of a student who (as a woman) would not have been eligible for his graduate-level course in mathematical logic. Many intellectuals, led by John Dewey, protested his treatment. Dewey and Horace M. Kallen edited a collection of articles on the CCNY affair in The Bertrand Russell Case. He soon joined the Barnes Foundation, lecturing to a varied audience on the history of philosophy - these lectures formed the basis of A History of Western Philosophy. His relationship with the eccentric Albert C. Barnes soon soured, and he returned to Britain in 1944 to rejoin the faculty of Trinity College.
During the 1940s and 1950s, Russell participated in many broadcasts over 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. En route to one of his lectures in Trondheim, Russell survived a plane crash in October 1948. A History of Western Philosophy (1945) became a best-seller, and provided Russell with a steady income for the remainder of his life. Along with his friend Albert Einstein, Russell had reached superstar status as an intellectual. In 1949, Russell was awarded the Order of Merit, and the following year he received the Nobel Prize in Literature.
In 1952, Russell was divorced by Peter, with whom he had been very unhappy. Conrad, Russell's son by Peter, did not see his father between the time of the divorce and 1968 (at which time his decision to meet his father caused a permanent breach with his mother). Russell married his fourth wife, Edith Finch, soon after the divorce, in December 1952. They had known each other since 1926, and Edith had lectured English at Bryn Mawr College near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, sharing a house for twenty years with Russell's old friend Lucy Donnelly. Edith remained with him until his death, and, by all accounts, their relationship was close and loving throughout their marriage. Russell's eldest son, John, suffered from serious mental illness, which was the source of ongoing disputes between Russell and John's mother, Russell's former wife, Dora. John's wife Susan was also mentally ill, and eventually Russell and Edith became the legal guardians of their three daughters (two of whom were later diagnosed with schizophrenia).
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. In 1963 he became the inaugural recipient of the Jerusalem Prize, an award for writers concerned with the freedom of the individual in society.
Bertrand Russell published his three-volume autobiography in 1967, 1968 and in 1969, which was the final volume. Whilst he grew frail, he remained lucid until the end. On 31 January 1970 he condemned what he saw as the "Israel aggression in the Middle East", saying that "We are frequently told that we must sympathize with Israel because of the suffering of the Jews in Europe at the hands of the Nazis. ... What Israel is doing today cannot be condoned, and to invoke the horror of the past to justify those of the present is gross hypocrisy". This was read out at the International Conference of Parliamentarians in Cairo on 3 February 1970.
Bertrand Russell died at 6.30 pm on 2 February 1970 at his home, Plas Penrhyn, Penrhyndeudraeth, Merioneth, Wales of influenza. He had previously fought that illness off in late December 1969. His ashes, as his will directed, were scattered after his cremation three days later.
Russell is generally recognised as one of the founders of analytic philosophy, 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 30 years later in Vienna by the logical positivists' "revolt against metaphysics". Russell was particularly critical of a doctrine he ascribed to idealism and coherentism, this he dubbed the doctrine of internal relations, which, Russell suggested, held that in order to know any particular thing, we must know all of its relations. Based on this Russell attempted to show that this would make space, time, science and the concept of number not fully intelligible. 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 grammatical components. Russell, in particular, saw formal 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 Ockham's principle against multiplying unnecessary entities, Occam's Razor, as a central part of the method of analysis. 
Russell had great influence on modern mathematical logic. The American philosopher and logician Willard Quine said Russell's work represented the greatest influence on his own work.
Russell's first mathematical book, An Essay on the Foundations of Geometry, was published in 1897. This work was heavily influenced by Immanuel Kant. Russell soon realised 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, while materials in the Bertrand Russell Archives at McMaster University include notes of his reading in algebraic logic by Charles S. Peirce and Ernst Schröder. He became convinced that the foundations of mathematics were to be found in logic, and following Gottlob Frege took an extensionalist approach in which logic was in turn based upon set theory. In 1900 he attended the first International Congress of Philosophy 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 defined logically all of the terms of these axioms with the exception of 0, number, successor, and the singular term, the, which were the primitives of his system. Russell took it upon himself to find logical definitions for each of these. Between 1897 and 1903 he published several articles applying Peano's notation to the classical Boole-Schröder algebra of relations, among them On the Notion of Order, Sur la logique des relations avec les applications ŕ la théorie des séries, and On Cardinal Numbers.
Russell 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. He did this in 1903, when he published The Principles of Mathematics, in which the concept of class is inextricably tied to the definition of number. The appendix to this work detailed a paradox arising in Frege's application of second- and higher-order functions which took first-order functions as their arguments, and he offered his first effort to resolve what would henceforth come to be known as the Russell Paradox. Before writing Principles, Russell became aware of Cantor's proof that there was no greatest cardinal number, which Russell believed was mistaken. The Cantor Paradox in turn was shown (for example by Crossley) to be a special case of the Russell Paradox. This caused Russell 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 comprehension, 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, and 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 realised, 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 neither Principia Mathematica, nor any other consistent system of primitive recursive arithmetic, could, within that system, determine that every proposition that could be formulated within that system was decidable, i.e. could decide whether that proposition or its negation was provable within the system (Gödel's incompleteness theorem).
Russell's last significant work in mathematics and logic, Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy, was written by hand 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.
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 in the Mind philosophical journal, which the mathematician and philosopher Frank P. 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? (Roughly the same problem would arise if there were two kings of France at present: which of them does "the king of France" denote?) 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, employing his distinction between sense and reference, suggested that such sentences, although meaningful, were neither true nor false. But 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," seem not only truth-valuable but indeed obviously true.
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 functioning correctly?
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. Strawson also claims that a denoting phrase that does not, in fact, denote anything could be supposed to follow the role of a "Widgy's inverted truth-value" and expresses the opposite meaning of the intended phrase. This can be shown using the example of "The present king of France is bald". Taken with the inverted truth-value methodology the meaning of this sentence becomes "It is true that there is no present king of France who is bald" which changes the denotation of 'the present king of France' from a primary denotation to a secondary one.
Wittgenstein, Russell's student, achieved considerable prominence in the philosophy of language after the posthumous publication of the Philosophical Investigations. In Russell's opinion, Wittgenstein's later work was misguided, and he decried its influence and that of its followers (especially members of the so-called "Oxford school" of ordinary language philosophy, who he believed were promoting a kind of mysticism). Russell's belief that philosophy's task is not limited to examining ordinary language is once again widely accepted in philosophy.
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.
Russell's epistemology went through many phases. Once he shed neo-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 favour, his influence remains strong 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 inferred, or reasoned to—i.e. 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/psychologist, William James, and one that was first formulated by Baruch Spinoza, whom Russell greatly admired. Instead of James' "pure experience", however, Russell characterised the stuff of our initial states of perception as "events", a stance which is curiously akin to his old teacher Whitehead's process philosophy.
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 specialised. 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 physics, and he even authored several popular science books, The ABC of Atoms (1923) and The ABC of Relativity (1925).
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 characterised as the patron saint of rationality, he agreed with Hume, who said that reason ought to be subordinate to ethical considerations.
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 says 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.
In his 1949 speech, "Am I an Atheist or an Agnostic?", Russell expressed his difficulty over whether to call himself an atheist or an agnostic:
As a philosopher, if I were speaking to a purely philosophic audience I should say that I ought to describe myself as an Agnostic, because I do not think that there is a conclusive argument by which one prove that there is not a God. On the other hand, if I am to convey the right impression to the ordinary man in the street I think that I ought to say that I am an Atheist, because, when I say that I cannot prove that there is not a God, I ought to add equally that I cannot prove that there are not the Homeric gods.
—Bertrand Russell, Collected Papers, vol. 11, p. 91
Though he would later question God's existence, he fully accepted the ontological argument during his undergraduate years,:
I remember the precise moment, one day in 1894, as I was walking along Trinity Lane [at Cambridge University where Russell was a student], when I saw in a flash (or thought I saw) that the ontological argument is valid. I had gone out to buy a tin of tobacco; on my way back, I suddenly threw it up in the air, and exclaimed as I caught it: "Great Scott, the ontological argument is sound!"
—Bertrand Russell, Autobiography of Bertrand Russell, 1967.
This quote has been exploited by many theologians over the years, such as by Louis Pojman in his Philosophy of Religion, who wish for readers to believe that even a well-known atheist-philosopher supports this particular argument for God's existence.
Russell also made an influential analysis of the omphalos hypothesis enunciated by Philip Henry Gosse—that any argument suggesting that the world was created as if it were already in motion could just as easily make it a few minutes old as a few thousand years:
There is no logical impossibility in the hypothesis that the world sprang into being five minutes ago, exactly as it then was, with a population that "remembered" a wholly unreal past. There is no logically necessary connection between events at different times; therefore nothing that is happening now or will happen in the future can disprove the hypothesis that the world began five minutes ago.
—Bertrand Russell, The Analysis of Mind, 1921, pp. 159–60; cf. Philosophy, Norton, 1927, p. 7, where Russell acknowledges Gosse's paternity of this anti-evolutionary argument.
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 0-671-20323-1). Its title essay was a talk given on March 6, 1927 at Battersea Town Hall, under the auspices of the South London Branch of the National Secular Society, UK, and published later that year as a pamphlet. The book also contains other essays in which 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 discusses specifics about Christian theology.
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.
—Bertrand Russell, Why I Am Not a Christian and Other Essays on Religion and Related Subjects
Russell had a major influence on modern philosophy, especially in the English-speaking world. While others were also influential, notably Frege, Moore, and Wittgenstein, Russell made analysis the dominant methodology of professional philosophy. The various analytic movements throughout the last century all owe something to Russell's earlier works.
Russell's influence on individual philosophers is singular, 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 purely tautological truths. Evidence of Russell's influence on Wittgenstein can be seen throughout the Tractatus, which Russell was instrumental in 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 linguistic and analytic 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., biographer Ray Monk) have called his "journalism," than they are with his technical, philosophical work. 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.
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.
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 Schoenman, then a young firebrand of the radical left.
Russell was never a complete pacifist; in his 1915 article on "The Ethics of War", he defended wars of colonization on utilitarian grounds when the side with the more advanced civilization could put the land to better use. However, Russell opposed nearly all wars between modern nations. His activism against British participation in World War I led to fines, the loss of his fellowship at Trinity College, Cambridge, and finally six months in prison. In 1943 Russell called his stance "relative political 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 1940 he acknowledged that in order to preserve democracy, Hitler had to be defeated.
Russell was opposed to the use and possession of nuclear weapons for most of their existence, but he may not have always been of that opinion. On November 20, 1948, in a public speech at Westminster School, addressing a gathering arranged by the New Commonwealth, Russell shocked some observers with comments that seemed to suggest a preemptive nuclear strike on the Soviet Union might be justified. Russell apparently argued that the threat of war between the United States and the Soviet Union would enable the United States to force the Soviet Union to accept the Baruch Plan for international atomic energy control. (Earlier in the year he had written in the same vein to Walter W. Marseille.) Russell felt this plan "had very great merits and showed considerable generosity, when it is remembered that America still had an unbroken nuclear monopoly." (Has Man a Future?, 1961). However Nicholas Griffin of McMaster University, in his book The Selected Letters of Bertrand Russell: The Public Years, 1914-1970, has claimed (after obtaining a transcript of the speech) that Russell's wording implies he didn't advocate the actual use of the atom bomb, but merely its diplomatic use as a massive source of leverage over the actions of the Soviets. Griffin's interpretation was disputed by Nigel Lawson, the former British Chancellor, who was present at the speech and who claims it was quite clear to the audience that Russell was advocating an actual First Strike. Whichever interpretation is correct, Russell later relented, instead arguing for mutual disarmament by the nuclear powers, possibly linked to some form of world government.
In 1955 Russell released the Russell-Einstein Manifesto, co-signed by Albert Einstein and nine other leading scientists and intellectuals, which led to the first of the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs in 1957. In 1958, Russell became the first president of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. He resigned two years later when the CND would not support civil disobedience, and formed the Committee of 100. In 1961, when he was in his late eighties, he was imprisoned for a week for inciting civil disobedience, in connection with protests at the Ministry of Defence and Hyde Park.
Increasingly concerned about the potential danger to humanity arising from nuclear weapons and other scientific discoveries, he also joined with Einstein, Oppenheimer, Rotblat and other eminent scientists of the day to establish the World Academy of Art and Science which was formally constituted in 1960.
Russell made a cameo appearance playing himself in the anti-war Bollywood film "Aman" which was released in India in 1967. This was Russell's only appearance in a feature film.
The Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation began work in 1963, in order to carry forward Russell's work for peace, human rights and social justice. He opposed the Vietnam War and, along with Jean-Paul Sartre, he organised a tribunal intended to expose U.S. war crimes; this came to be known as the Russell Tribunal.
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 visited the Soviet Union and met Lenin in 1920, and on his return wrote a critical tract, The Practice and Theory of Bolshevism. 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, similar in some ways to yet possessing important differences with the conception promoted by the Fabian Society. He was strongly critical of Stalin's regime, and of the practices of states proclaiming Marxism and Communism generally. Russell was a consistent enthusiast for democracy and world government, and advocated the establishment of a democratic international government in some of the essays collected in In Praise of Idleness (1935), and also in Has Man a Future? (1961).
One who believes as I do, that free intellect is the chief engine of human progress, cannot but be fundamentally opposed to Bolshevism as much as to the Church of Rome. The hopes which inspire communism are, in the main, as admirable as those instilled by the Sermon on the Mount, but they are held as fanatically and are as likely to do as much harm.
—Bertrand Russell, The Practice and Theory of Bolshevism, 1920
For my part, while I am as convinced a Socialist as the most ardent Marxian, I do not regard Socialism as a gospel of proletarian revenge, nor even, primarily, as a means of securing economic justice. I regard it primarily as an adjustment to machine production demanded by considerations of common sense, and calculated to increase the happiness, not only of proletarians, but of all except a tiny minority of the human race.
—Bertrand Russell, "The Case for Socialism" (In Praise of Idleness, 1935)
Modern methods of production have given us the possibility of ease and security for all; we have chosen, instead, to have overwork for some and starvation for the others. Hitherto we have continued to be as energetic as we were before there were machines; in this we have been foolish, but there is no reason to go on being foolish for ever.
—Bertrand Russell, In Praise of Idleness, 1935
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.
Russell wrote against Victorian notions of morality. Marriage and Morals (1929) 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, and advocated "trial marriages" or "companionate marriage", formalised relationships whereby young people could legitimately have sexual intercourse without being expected to remain married in the long term or to have children (an idea first proposed by Judge Ben Lindsey). This might not seem extreme by today's standards, but it was enough to raise vigorous protests and denunciations against him during his visit to the United States shortly after the book's publication. Russell was also ahead of his time in advocating open sex education and widespread access to contraception. He also advocated easy divorce, but only if the marriage had produced no children - Russell's view was that parents should remain married but tolerant of each other's sexual infidelity, if they had children. This reflected his life at the time - his second wife Dora was openly having an affair, and would soon become pregnant by another man, but Russell was keen for their children John and Kate to have a "normal" family life.
Russell's private life was even more unconventional and freewheeling than his published writings revealed, but that was not well known at the time. For example, philosopher Sidney Hook reports that Russell often spoke of his sexual prowess and of his various conquests.
Some critics of Russell have pointed out racist passages in his early writings, as well as his initial praise for scientific eugenics. On November 16, 1922, for instance, he gave a lecture to the General Meeting of Dr. Marie Stopes's Society for Constructive Birth Control and Racial Progress on "Birth Control and International Relations," in which he described the difficulties keeping the "coloured races" in their home countries and pointing out that at some point the pressure would become too great and immigration barriers would fall. His remarks anticipated the population control movement of the 1960s and the role of the United Nations.
This policy may last some time, but in the end under it we shall have to give way--we are only putting off the evil day; the one real remedy is birth control, that is getting the people of the world to limit themselves to those numbers which they can keep upon their own soil... I do not see how we can hope permanently to be strong enough to keep the coloured races out; sooner or later they are bound to overflow, so the best we can do is to hope that those nations will see the wisdom of Birth Control.... We need a strong international authority.
—"Lecture by the Hon. Bertrand Russell", Birth Control News, vol 1, no. 8 (December 1922), p.2
In another example, in early editions of his book Marriage and Morals (1929) he asserted:
In extreme cases there can be little doubt of the superiority of one race to another.... It seems on the whole fair to regard negroes as on the average inferior to white men, although for work in the tropics they are indispensable, so that their extermination (apart from questions of humanity) would be highly undesirable.
—Bertrand Russell, Marriage and Morals (1929)
Later in his life, when eugenics had become less fashionable, Russell criticized eugenic programs for their vulnerability to corruption, and, by 1932, he was to condemn the "unwarranted assumption" that "Negroes are congenitally inferior to white men" (Education and the Social Order, Chap. 3). Racism rapidly declined in acceptance throughout the second half of the 20th century. In fact, Russell seems to have been one of the leaders of change in this sphere. He wrote a chapter on "Racial Antagonism" in New Hopes for a Changing World (1951):
It is sometimes maintained that racial mixture is biologically undesirable. There is no evidence whatever for this view. Nor is there, apparently, any reason to think that Negroes are congenitally less intelligent than white people, but as to that it will be difficult to judge until they have equal scope and equally good social conditions.
—Bertrand Russell, New Hopes for a Changing World (London: Allen & Unwin, 1951, p. 108)
There is a much later condemnation-in-passing of racism in Russell's "16 Questions on the Assassination" (1964), in which he mentions "Senator Russell of Georgia and Congressman Boggs of Louisiana ... whose racist views have brought shame on the United States".
This is a selected bibliography of Russell's books in English sorted by year of first publication.
Note: This is a mere sampling, for Russell also authored many pamphlets, introductions, articles and letters to the editor. 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 1983. This collection of his shorter and previously unpublished works is now up to 16 volumes, and many more are forthcoming. An additional 3 volumes catalogue just his bibliography. The Russell Archives at McMaster also have more than 30,000 letters that he wrote.
B. Secondary references: