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