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Bertrand Arthur William Russell
May 18, 1872 - February 2, 1970



Bertrand Arthur William Russell, 3rd Earl Russell (May 18, 1872 - February 2, 1970) was one of the most influential mathematicians, philosophers and logicians working (mostly) in the 20th century, an important political liberal, activist and a populariser of philosophy. Millions looked up to Russell as a sort of prophet of the creative and rational life; at the same time, his stance on many topics was extremely controversial. He was born in 1872, at the height of Britain's economic and political ascendancy, and died of influenza in 1970, when Britain's empire had all but vanished and her power had been drained in two victorious but debilitating world wars. At his death, however, his voice still carried moral authority, for he was one of the world's most influential critics of nuclear weapons and the American war in Vietnam.

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

Russell's philosophical and logical work


In mathematical logic, Russell established Russell's paradox, which exposed an inconsistency in naïve set theory and led directly to the creation of modern axiomatic set theory. It also crippled Gottlob Frege's project of reducing mathematics to logic. Nonetheless, Russell defended logicism (the view that mathematics is in some important sense reducible to logic) and attempted this project himself, along with Alfred North Whitehead, in the Principia Mathematica, a clean axiomatic system on which all of mathematics can be built, but which was never fully completed. Although it did not fall prey to the paradoxes in Frege's approach, it was later proven by Kurt Gödel that—for exactly that reason—neither Principia Mathematica nor any other consistent logical system could prove all mathematical truths, and hence Russell's project was necessarily incomplete.

Philosophy of Language

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

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

Russell's solution was, first of all, to analyze not the term alone but the entire sentence 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 sentence they appear in. The sentence 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 P. F. Strawson, is that definite descriptions do not claim that their object exists, they merely presuppose that it does.


Russell's epistemology went through many phases, most of which have since fallen by the wayside in philosophy. Nonetheless, his influence lingers on in the distinction between two ways in which we can be familiar with objects: "knowledge by acquaintance" and "knowledge by description." Russell thought that we could only be acquainted with our own "sense data," momentary perceptions of colours, sounds, and the like, and that everything else, including the physical objects that these were sense data of, could only be reasoned to--known by description--and not known directly. But the distinction has gained much wider application.

Influence on Philosophy

Russell is generally recognized as one of the founders of analytic philosophy. Alongside G. E. Moore he was largely responsible for the "revolt against Idealism" in British philosophy at the beginning of the twentieth century (which was echoed, thirty years later in Vienna, by the logical positivists' "revolt against metaphysics"). Russell and Moore strove to eliminate what they saw as meaningless and incoherent philosophy, and to seek clarity and precision in argument. Russell's logical work with Whitehead continued this project. Ludwig Wittgenstein was his student between 1911 and 1914, and he was responsible for having Wittgenstein's Tractatus published and for securing the latter a position at Cambridge and several fellowships. However, he came to disagree with Wittgenstein's later approach to philosophy, while Wittgenstein came to think of Russell as "superficial and glib." Russell's influence also lies heavily on the work of W. V. Quine, Karl Popper, and a number of others.

Russell's activism

Bertrand Russell was an outspoken pacifist. He opposed England's participation in World War I and as a result was first fined, then lost his professorship at Trinity College of Cambridge University and later imprisoned for six months. In the years leading to World War II, he supported the policy of appeasement, but later acknowledged that Hitler had to be defeated.

Russell called his stance "Relative Pacifism"—he held that war was always a great evil, but in some particularly extreme circumstances (such as when Hitler threatened to take over Europe) it might be a lesser of multiple evils.

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

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

Russell wrote against Victorian notions of morality. His early writings expressed his opinion that sex between a man and woman who are not married to each other is not necessarily immoral if they truly love one another. This might not seem extreme by today's standards, but it was enough to raise vigorous protests and denunciations against him during his first visit to the United States. (Russell's private life was rather more hedonistic than his published writings revealed, but that was not yet well known at the time.)

He 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.

In matters of religion, Russell classified himself as a philosophical agnostic and a practical atheist. He wrote that his attitude towards the Christian God was the same as his attitude towards the Greek gods: strongly convinced that they don't exist, but not able to rigorously prove it. His position is explained in the essays Am I An Atheist Or An Agnostic? and Why I am not a Christian ISBN 0671203231.

Politically he envisioned a kind of benevolent democratic socialism. He was extremely critical of the totalitarianism exhibited by Stalin's regime.

Russell's life

Bertrand Russell was from an aristocratic English family. His paternal grandfather Lord John Russell had been a prime minister in the 1840s, and was himself the second son of the 6th Duke of Bedford, of a leading Whig/ Liberal family. His mother Viscountess Amberley (who died when he was 2) was herself from an aristocratic family, and was the sister of Rosalind, Countess of Carlisle. His parents were extremely radical for their times; his father Viscount Amberley (who died when Bertrand was 4) was an atheist who had consented to his wife's affair with their children's tutor. His godfather was Utilitarian philosopher John Stuart Mill.

Despite this eccentric background, Russell's childhood was relatively conventional. After his parents' death, Russell and his older brother Frank (the future 2nd Earl) were raised by their stauchly Victorian grandparents - the Earl and Countess Russell (Lord John Russell and his second wife Lady Frances Elliot). However, Russell departed from his grandparents' expectations of him starting with his marriage.

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 married her in December 1894. Their marriage was ended by separation in 1911. Russell had never been faithful; he had passionate affairs with, among others, Lady Ottoline Morrell (half-sister of the 6th Duke of Portland) and the actress Lady Constance Malleson.

Russell studied philosophy and logic at Cambridge University, starting in 1890. He became a fellow of Trinity College in 1908. In 1920, Russell travelled to Russia and subsequently lectured in Peking on philosophy for one year.

In 1921, after Russell had lost his professorship, he divorced Alys and married Dora Russell nee Dora Black. Their children were John Conrad Russell (who briefly succeeded his father as 4th Earl Russell) and Lady Katherine Russell, now Lady Katherine Tait). Russell supported himself during this time by writing popular books explaining matters of physics, ethics and education to the layman. Together with Dora, he founded the experimental Beacon Hill school in 1927.

Upon the death of his elder brother in 1931, Russell became 3rd Earl Russell. It is, however, quite rare for him to be referred to by this title.

After Russell's marriage to Dora broke up over her adultery with an American journalist, in 1936 he took as his third wife, an Oxford undergraduate named Patricia ("Peter") Spence. She had been his children's governess in the summer of 1930. Russell and Peter had one son, Conrad.

In the spring of 1939, Russell moved to Santa Barbara to lecture at the University of California, Los Angeles. He was appointed professor at the City College of New York shortly thereafter, but after public outcries, the appointment was annulled by the courts: his radical opinions made him "morally unfit" to teach at the college. He returned to Britain in 1944 and rejoined the faculty of Trinity College.

In 1952, Russell divorced Peter and married his fourth wife, Edith (Finch). They had known each other since 1925. Edith had lectured in English at Bryn Mawr College, near Philadelphia.

Bertrand Russell wrote his three volume autobiography in the late 1960s and died in 1970 in Wales. His ashes were scattered over the Welsh mountains.

He was succeeded in his titles by his son by his second marriage to Dora Russell Black, and then by his younger son (by his third marriage to Peter). His younger son Conrad, 5th Earl Russell, is an elected hereditary peer to the British House of Lords, and a respected British academic.


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

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

Early Life and Education

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

At Trinity College

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

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

First Marriage and Mathematical Writings

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

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

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

Theory of Knowledge and Metaphysics

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

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

Travel and Controversy

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

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

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

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

Radical Sage

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

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

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










This web page was last updated on: 15 December, 2008