Russell was an influential British logician, philosopher, and mathematician,
working mostly in the 20th century. A prolific writer, Bertrand
Russell 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 liberal as well as a socialist and anti-war 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.
at the height of Britain's economic and political ascendancy,
he died of influenza nearly a century later when the British Empire
had all but vanished; its power dissipated in two victorious,
but debilitating world wars. As one of the world's best-known
intellectuals, Russell's voice carried enormous moral authority,
even into his early 90s. Among his other political activities,
Russell was a vigorous proponent of nuclear disarmament and an
outspoken critic of the American war in Vietnam.
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,
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)
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.
had two siblings: Frank (nearly seven years older than Bertrand),
and Rachel (four years older). In June 1875 Russell's mother died
of diphtheria, followed shortly by Rachel, and in January 1876
his father 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
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.
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
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
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.
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 actor Lady Constance Malleson. Alys pined for him for
these years and continued to love Russell for the rest of her
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.
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, whose genius he soon recognised (and whom
he viewed as a successor who would continue his work on mathematical
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.
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 Activism).
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.
subsequently lectured in Peking 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".
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.
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.
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
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 in 1940, 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 started by the mother of a student who would not
have been eligible for his graduate-level course in abstract,
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
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.
route to one of his lectures in Trondheim, Russell survived a
fatal 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.
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.
They had known each other since 1925, and Edith had lectured in
English at Bryn Mawr College near Philadelphia, sharing a house
for twenty years with Russell's old friend Lucy Donnelly.
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
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.
Russell published his three-volume autobiography in the late 1960s.
While he grew frail, he remained lucid until the end, when, in
1970, he died in his home, Plas Penrhyn, Penrhyndeudraeth, Merioneth,
Wales. His ashes, as his will directed, were scattered.
Russell is generally recognised 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.
revolt was echoed 30 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.
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.
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'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
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
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
wrote some books about practical ethical issues such as marriage.
His opinions on this field are liberal. He argues that sexual
relationships outside of marriages are acceptable. In his book,
Human Society in Ethics and Politics (1954), he advocates in favor
of the view that we should see moral issues from the point of
view of the desires of individuals.
are allowed to do what they desire, as long as there are no conflicting
desires among different individuals. Desires are not bad, in and
of themselves, but on occasion, their potential or actual consequences
are. Russell also writes that punishment is important only in
an instrumental sense. Thus we should not punish someone solely
for the sake of punishment.
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.
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
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.
and philosophy of mathematics
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.
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.
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 tied to logic, and following Gottlob Frege took an extensionalist
approach in which logic was in turn based upon set theory.
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 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.
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 à la théorie des séries,
and On Cardinal Numbers.
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.
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.
In writing Principles, Russell came across 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.
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 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.
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
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
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
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).
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.
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 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.
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.)
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?
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."
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.
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
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.
Russell's student, later achieved considerable 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" of ordinary language philosophy, 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.
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
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.
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.
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).
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
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
his 1949 speech, "Am I an Atheist or an Agnostic?",
Russell expressed his difficulty over whether to call himself
an atheist or an agnostic:
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
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:
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
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.
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.
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), whose title essay was a talk given March 6,
1927 at Battersea Town Hall, under the auspices of the South London
Branch of the National Secular Society, UK.
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.
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
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.
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.
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 Wittgenstein can be seen throughout the Tractatus, which Russell
was responsible for having published.
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
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.
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.
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.
war and nuclear weapons
While never a complete pacifist (in 'The Ethics of War', an article
published in 1915, Russell stated that colonial wars were legitimate
where the side with the stronger culture could put the land to
better use), Russell opposed British participation in World War
I. As a result, he was first fined, then lost his professorship
at Trinity College, Cambridge, and was later imprisoned for six
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.
was a prominent opponent of nuclear weapons. 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
was justified. Russell 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.)
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). Russell later
relented from this stance, instead arguing for mutual disarmament
by the nuclear powers, possibly linked to some form of world government.
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
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.
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."
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 an
enthusiast for world government, and advocated the establishment
of an international or world government in some of the essays
collected in In Praise of Idleness (1935), and also in Has Man
a Future? (1961).
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
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)
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
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
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
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"
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 the then-fashionable
idea of eugenics. For example, in early editions of his book Marriage
and Morals (1929) asserted:
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)
in his life, 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):
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)
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
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 98th year:
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."
Bertrand Russell, "Reflections on My Eightieth Birthday"
Comments about Russell
"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.
"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 Griffin, The Cambridge Companion to Bertrand
Russell, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.
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
— Sidney Hook, Out of Step, An Unquiet Life in the 20th
Century, NY: Carol & Graff, 1988.
"Russell's books should be bound in two colours, those
dealing with mathematical logic in red—and all students
of philosophy should read them; those dealing with ethics and
politics in blue—and no one should be allowed to read them."
— Rush Rhees, Recollections of Wittgenstein, Oxford Paperbacks,
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.
"Oh, Bertrand Russell! Oh, Hewlett Johnson! Where, oh
where, was your flaming conscience at that time?"
— Alexandr I. Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago, Harper
& Row, 1974.
a recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature
In other words, it was specifically not for his incontestably
great contributions to philosophy—The Principles of Mathematics,
'On Denoting' and Principia Mathematica—that he was being
honoured, but for the later work that his fellow philosophers
were unanimous in regarding as inferior.
— Ray Monk, Bertrand Russell, The Ghost of Madness, p. 332.
"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."
— Katharine Tait, My Father Bertrand Russell, NY: Harcourt
Brace Jovanovich, 1975, p. 202.
does not determine who is right. Only who is left. "
secret to true happiness is to face the fact that the world is
whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always
so certain of themselves, but wiser people so full of doubts.
could tell by his [Aldous Huxley] conversation which volume of
the Encyclopaedia Britannica he'd been reading. One day it would
be Alps, Andes and Apennines, and the next it would be the Himalayas
and the Hippocratic Oath."
Tale of Two Moralities" "I dislike Nietzsche,"
Russell wrote, "because he likes the contemplation of pain,
because he erects conceit into a duty, because the men whom he
most admires are conquerors, whose glory is cleverness in causing
men to die."