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Bertrand Arthur William Russell, 3rd Earl (1872-1970)


British philosopher, mathematician and social critic, one of the most widely read philosophers of the last century. Bertrand Russell was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1950. In his memoirs he mentions that he formed in 1895 a plan to "write one series of books on the philosophy of the sciences from pure mathematics to physiology, and another series of books on social questions. I hoped that the two series might ultimately meet in a synthesis at once scientific and practical."  (Autobiography by Bertrand Russell, with an introduction by Michael Foot, 1998, p. 126)

"The belief that fashion alone should dominate opinion has great advantages. It makes thought unnecessary and puts the highest intelligence within the reach of everyone. It is not difficult to learn the correct use of such words as 'complex,' 'sadism,' 'Oedipus,' 'bourgeois,' 'deviation,' 'left'; and nothing more is needed to make a brilliant writer or talker." (from 'On Being Modern-minded,' in Unpopular Essays by Bertrand Russell, introduction by Kirk Willis, 2009, pp. 64-65)

Bertrand Russell was born in Trelleck, Gwent, the second son of Viscount Amberley. His mother, Katherine, was the daughter of Baron Stanley of Aderley. She died of diphtheria in 1874. Her husband died twenty months later, after a long period of gradually increasing debility. Lord Amberley was a friend of John Stuart Mill – he was "philosophical, studious, unworldly, morose, and priggish," wrote Russell later in his autobiography. (Autobiography by Bertrand Russell, with an introduction by Michael Foot, 1998, p. 10) Katherine, whom Russell only knew from her diary and her letters, he described as "vigorous, lively, witty, serious, original, and fearless." (Ibid., p. 10) When she died she was buried without any religious ceremony. At the age of three Russell was an orphan. He was brought up by his grandfather, Lord John Russell, who had been prime minister twice, and his wife Lady John.

Inspired by Euclid's Geometry, Russell displayed a keen aptitude for pure mathematics and developed an interest in philosophy. "I like precision," he once said. "I like sharp outlines. I hate misty vagueness." (Portraits from Memory: And Other Essays by Bertrand Russell, with a new foreword by Nicholas Griffin, 2021, p. 9) However, when he was about fourteen he become interested in theology, but during the following years he rejected free will, immortality, and belief in God. He read widely, mostly books from his grandfather's library, but it was only at Cambridge, when he started to read such "modern" writers of the early 1890s as Ibsen, Shaw, Flaubert, Walt Whitman, and Nitzsche. At Trinity College, Cambridge, his brilliance was soon recognized, and brought him a membership of the "Apostles," a forerunner of the Bloomsbury Set. After graduating from Cambridge in 1894, Russell worked briefly at the British Embassy in Paris as honorary attaché. Next year he became a fellow of Trinity College.

Against his family's wishes, Russell married an American Quaker, Alys Persall Smith, and went off with his wife to Berlin, where he studied economics and gathered data for the first of his ninety-odd books, German Social Democracy (1896). A year later Russell's fellowship dissertation, An Essay on the Foundations of Geometry (1897) came out. "It was towards the end of 1898 that Moore and I rebelled against both Kant and Hegel. Moore led the way, but I followed closely in his footsteps," Russell recalled this period. (My Philosophical Development by Bertrand Russell, with an introduction by Thomas Baldwin, 1993, p. 42)

The Principles of Mathematics (1903) was Russell's first major work. It proposed that the foundations of mathematics could be deduced from a few logical ideas. In it Russell arrived at the view of Gottlob Frege (1848-1925), that mathematics is a continuation of logic and that its subject-matter is a system of Platonic essences that exist in the realm outside both mind and matter. Principia Mathematica (1910-13) was written in collaboration with the philosopher and mathematician Alfred North Whitehead. According to Russell and Whitehead, philosophy should limit itself to simple, objective accounts of phenomena. Empirical knowledge was the only path to truth and all other knowledge was subjective and misleading. Nevertheless, later Russell became sceptical of the empirical method as the sole means for ascertaining the truth, and admitted that much of philosophy does depend on unprovable a priori assumptions about the universe. He, however, maintained in contrast to Wittgenstein, that philosophy could and should deliver substantial results: theories about what exists, what can be known, how we come to know it.

After Principia Russell never again worked intensively in mathematics. Russell's interpretation of numbers as classes of classes was to give him much trouble: if we have a class that is not a member of itself – is it a member of itself? If yes, then no, if no, then yes. After discussions with Wittgenstein Russell accepted the view that mathematical statements are tautologies, not truths about a realm of logico-mathematical entities.

Russell's concise and original introductory book, The Problems of Philosophy, came out in 1912. He continued with works on epistemology, Mysticism and Logic and Other Essays (1918) and The Analysis of Mind (1921). In his paper of 1905, 'On Denoting,' Russell showed how a logical form could differ from obvious forms of common language. The work was the foundation of much twentieth-century philosophizing about language.

The essential point of his theory, Russell argued in his intellectual autobiography, "was that although 'the golden mountain' may be grammatically the subject of a significant proposition, such a proposition when rightly analysed no longer has such a subject. The proposition 'the golden mountain does not exist' becomes 'the propositional function "x is golden and a mountain" is false for all values of x'." (My Philosophical Development by Bertrand Russell, with an introduction by Thomas Baldwin, 1993, p. 64)

In 1907 Russell stood unsuccessfully for parliament as a candidate for the Women's Suffragette Society, and the next year he became a Fellow of the Royal Society. Believing that inherited wealth was immoral, Russell gave most of his money away to his university. His marriage ended when he began a lengthy affair with the literary hostess Lady Ottoline Morrell, who had been a close friend of the Swedish writer and physician Axel Munthe (1857-1949). Other liaisons followed, among others with T.S. Eliot's wife Vivien Haigh-Wood. Later Russell wrote about his sexual morality and agnosticism in Marriage and Morals (1929). Russell stated that human beings are not naturally monogamous, outraging many with his views. He also opposed existing laws against homosexuality and maintained that sexual relations between unmarried people are not morally wrong.

At the outbreak of World War I, Russell was an outspoken pacifist, which lost him his fellowship in 1916. At the beginning of the war, he helped orgazine a petition urging that Britain remain neutral. In 1918 Russell served six months in prison, convicted of libelling an ally – the American army – in a Tribune article. While in Brixton Gaol, he worked on Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy (1919); he was also allowed to employ other prisoners as servants.

World War I darkened Russell's view of human nature. "I learned an understanding of instinctive processes which I had not possessed before." (Bertrand Russell: The Ghost of Madness 1921-1970 by Ray Monk, 2001, p. 4) Also Ludwig Wittgenstein's criticism of Russell's work on the theory of knowledge disturbed his philosophical self-confidence. Russell visited Russia in 1920 with a Labour Party delegation and met Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky, but returned deeply disillusioned and published his sharp criticism, The Practice and Theory of Bolshevism (1920).

In 1922 Russell celebrated his 50th birthday, believing that "brain becomes rigid at 50." He was a famous and controversial figure – ""Bertie is a fervid egoist," Virginia Woolf wrote in her diary about her friend. (The Phantom Table: Woolf, Fry, Russell and the Epistemology of Modernism by Ann Banfield, 2007, p. 178) Russell saw himself as "a non-supernatural Faust for whom Mephistopheles was represented by the Great War." (Autobiography by Bertrand Russell, with an introduction by Michael Foot, 1998, p. 238) Whereas Russell had not been delighted at the prospect of war, Wittgenstein had enlisted in the Austrian army, hoping that the nearness of death would bring a new light into his life. When they met in 1922, Wittgenstein ridiculed Russell's concern to make the world a safer place.

After traveling in Russia and China, Russell boasted of being inured to such small things as insects, but Wittgenstein was terrified of wasps and bugs. The meeting marked the end of their friendship. "Russell's books should be bound in two colours," Wittgenstein said to Maurice Drury, who had been one of his students at Cambridge, "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." (Recollections of Wittgenstein by Hermine Wittgenstein, Fania Pascal, F.R. Leavis, John King, M. O'C. Drury, 1984, p. 112)

From about 1927 to 1938 Russell lived by lecturing and writing on a huge range of popular subjects. In 1927 he gave a lecture, 'Why I am not a Christian', in which he stated that "The whole conception of God is a conception derived from the ancient Oriental despotisms. It is a conception quite unworthy of free men." (Why I Am Not a Christian: And Other Essays on Religion and Related Subjects by Bertrand Russell, edited, with an Appendix on the "Bertrand Russell Case" by Paul Edwards, 1957, p. 23) Russell' views were attacked by T. S. Eliot in his journal The Monthly Criterion. Eliot wrote that "Atheism is often merely a variety of Christianity," and Russell's "Non-Christianity is merely a variety of Low Church sentiment. That is why his pamphlet is a curious, and a pathetic, document." (A History of Atheism in Britain: From Hobbes to Russell by David Berman, 2013, p. 232) Russell pursued his philosophical work in The Analysis of Mind (1921) and The Analysis of Matter (1927). Between the years 1920 and 1921 he was professor at Peking, and in 1927 he started with his former student and second wife Dora Black a progressive school at Beacon Hill, on the Sussex Downs. In On Education (1926) Russell called for an education that would liberate the child from unthinking obedience to parental and religious authority.

The experiment at Beacon Hill lasted for five years and gave material to the book Education and the Social Order (1932). In 1936 Russell married Patricia Spence, who had been his research assistant on his political history Freedom and Organization (1934). In 1938 he moved to the United States, returning to academic philosophical work. He was a visiting professor at the University of California at Los Angeles, and in 1940 he was appointed Professor of Philosophy at the College of the City of New York. The appointment was revoked and he was barred from teaching basically because of his libertarian opinions. Judge McGeehan declared that "considering Dr Russell's principles, with reference to the Penal Law of the State of New York, it appears that not only would the morals of the students be undermined, but his doctrines would tend to bring them, and in some cases their parents and guardians, in conflict with the Penal Law". (Why I Am Not a Christian: And Other Essays on Religion and Related Subjects by Bertrand Russell, edited, with an Appendix on the "Bertrand Russell Case" by Paul Edwards, 1957, p. 239) The judge also tried to hint that Russell promoted the practice of masturbation, in which he referred to Russell's book entitled Education and the Good Life (1926). From California Russell went to Harvard, where his lectures proceeded without incidents. An appointment from the Barnes Foundation near Philadelphia gave Russell an opportunity to write one of his most popular works, A History of Western Philosophy (1945). Its success permanently ended his financial difficulties and earned him the Nobel Prize. In 1944 Russell returned to Cambridge as a Fellow of his old college, Trinity.

During WW II Russell abandoned his pacifism, but in the final decades of his life he became the leading figure in the antinuclear weapons movement. From 1950 to his death Russell was extremely active in political campaigning. He established the Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation in 1964, supported the Jews in Russia and the Arabs in Palestine and condemned the Vietnam War. In his family life Russell had his own tragedies: his son John and his granddaughters Sarah and Lucy suffered from schizophrenia. Russell turned over the care of John to his mother Dora. Lucy killed herself five years after Russell's death.

Retaining his ability to cause debate, Russell was imprisoned in 1961 with his fourth and final wife Edith Finch for taking part in a demonstration in Whitehall. The sentence was reduced on medical grounds to seven days in Brixton Prison. His last years Russell spent in North Wales. His later works include Human Knowledge: Its Scope and Limits (1948), two collections of sardonic fables, Satan in the Suburbs and Other Stories (1953) and Nightmares of Eminent Persons and Other Stories (1954), and The Autobiography of Bertrand Russell (3 vols., 1967-69), in which he stated in the 'Prologue:' "Three passions, simple but overwhelmingly strong, have governed my life: the longing for love, the search for knowledge and unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind." Russell died of influenza on February 2, 1970. When asked what he would say to God if he found himself before Him, Russell answered: "I should reproach him for not giving us enough evidence." (Atheism for Beginners: A Course Book for Schools and Colleges by Michael Palmer, 2013, p. 210)

Though Russell was a pioneer of logical positivism, which was further developed by such philosophers from the 'Vienna circle' as Ludwig Wittgenstein and Rudolf Carnap, he never identified himself fully with the group. "The stuff of which the world of our experience is composed is, in my belief, neither mind nor matter," he wrote, "but something more primitive than either. Both mind ands matter seem to be composite, and the stuff of which they are compounded lies in a sense between the two, in a sense above them both, like a common ancestor." (The Analysis of Mind by Bertrand Russel, 2004, p. 10) In Human Knowledge: Its Scope and Limits Russell argued that while the data of sense are mental, they are caused by physical events. The world is a vast collection of facts and events, but beyond the laws of their occurrence science cannot go.

For further reading: The Philosophy of Bertrand Russell, ed. by P.A. Schilpp (1946); Bertrand Russell's Philosophy by L. Aiken (1963); Bertrand Russell on Education by J. Park (1963); Bertrand Russell and the British Tradition in Philosophy by D.F. Pears (1967); Russell by A.J. Ayer (1972); The Life of Bertrand Russell by R.W. Clark (1975); Russell by R.M. Sainsbury (1979); Bertrand Russell and His World by R.W. Clark (1981); Bertrand Russell and the Pacifists in the First World War by J. Vellacott (1981); Bertrand Russell: A Political Life by A. Ryan (1988); Bertrand Russell by A. Brink (1989); Idealism and the Emergence of Analytic Philosophy by P. Hylton (1990); Russell's Idealist Apprenticeship by N. Griffin (1991); The Mathematical Philosophy of Bertrand Russell by F.A. Rodriguez-Consuegra (1991); Bertrand Russell by C. Moorehead (1992); Russell and Analytic Philosophy by A.D. Irvine and G.A. Wedeking (1993); Bertrand Russell: The Spirit of Solitude 1872-1921 by Ray Monk (1996); Life of Bertrand Russell by Ray Monk (1996); Bertrand Russell: The Ghost of Madness, 1921-1970 by Ray Monk (2000); Russell Revisited: Critical Reflections on the Thought of Bertrand Russell, edited by Alan Schwerin (2009); Acquaintance, Knowledge, and Logic: New Essays on Bertrand Russell's The Problems of Philosophy, edited by Donovan Wishon and Bernard Linsky (2015); Bertrand Russell and the Nature of Propositions: a History and Defence of the Multiple Relation Theory of Judgement by Samuel Lebens (2017) ; The Bloomsbury Companion to Bertrand Russell, edited by Russell Wahl (2018)  - Note: Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) sent his first work Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus to Russell from Italy in 1918, where he had been taken prisoner on the front of WW I. Wittgenstein succeeded in 1939 G.E. Moore as professor of mental philosophy and logic in Cambridge, but resigned in 1947 and the Finnish philosopher Georg Henrik von Wright was invited to succeed Wittgenstein. Suom.: Russellilta on myös suomennettu mm. Filosofiaa jokamiehelle, Yksilön vapaus ja sen rajoitukset

Selected bibliography:

  • German Social Democracy, 1896
  • An Essay on the Foundations of Geometry, 1987
  •  A Critical Exposition of the Philosophy of Leibniz, 1900
  • The Principles of Mathematics, 1903
  • Philosophical Essays, 1910 (reissued as mysticism and Logic, 1981)
  • Principia Mathematica, 1910-1916 (3 vols., with Alfred North Whitehead)
  • The Problems of Philosophy, 1912
    - Filosofian ongelmia (suom. Pellervo Oksanen, 1969)
  • The Scientific Method in Philosophy / Our Knowledge of the External World, 1914
  • Principles of Social Recobstruction / Why Men Fight, 1916
  • Justice in War-Time, 1916
  • Political Ideals, 1917
  • Proposed Roads to Freedom, 1918
  • Mysticism and Logic and Other Essays, 1918
  • Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy, 1919
  • The Practice and Theory of Bolshevism, 1920
  • The Analysis of Mind, 1921
  • The Problem of China, 1922
  • The ABC of Atoms, 1923
  • The Prospects of Industrial Civilization, 1923
  • Icarus; or, The Future of Science, 1924
  • The ABC of Relativity, 1925
  • What I Believe, 1925
  • Education and The Good Life, 1926
  • On Education, Especially in Early Childhood, 1926
    - Kasvatus ja elämäntaito (suom. Aili Salomaa, 1930)
  • The Analysis of Matter, 1927
  • An Outline of Philosophy, 1927
  • Why I Am Not a Christian, 1927
    - Miksi en ole kristitty? (suom. E. F. Rautela, 1948) / Miksi vapaa-ajattelija ei voi olla kristitty (suom. 1957)
  • Selected Papers of Bertrand Russell, 1927
  • Sceptical Essays, 1928
  • Marriage and Morals, 1929
    - Avioliitto ja moraali (suom. J.A. Hollo, 1951)
  • The Conquest of Happiness, 1930
    - Onnen valloittaminen (suom. J.A.Hollo, 1953)
  • The Scientific Outlook, 1931
  • Education and the Social Order, 1932
  • The Nature of Mathematics, 1933
  • Freedom and Organization, 1814–1914, 1934
  • In Praise of Idleness, 1935
  • Religion and Science, 1935
  • The Amberley Papers, 1937 (ed.)
  • Which Way to Peace?, 1938
  • Power: A New Social Analysis, 1938
  • An Inquiry into Meaning and Truth, 1940 (rev. ed., 1995, with an introduction by Thomas Baldwin)  
  • Let the People Think: A Selection of Essays, 1941
  • An Outline of Intellectual Rubbish: A Hilarious Catalogue of Organized and Individual Stupidity, 1943 
  • The Value of Free Thought: How to Become a Truth-Seeker and Break the Chains of Mental Slavery, 1944
  • A History of Western Philosophy, 1945
    - Länsimaisen filosofian historia 1-2 (suom. J.A. Hollo, 1948)
  • Philosophyn and Politics, 1947
  • Human Knowledge: Its Scope and Limits, 1948
  • Authority and the Individual, 1949
    - Yksilön vapaus ja sen rajoitukset (suom. J.A. Hollo, 1949)
  • Unpopular Essays, 1950
    - Filosofiaa jokamiehelle (suom. Kyllikki Sutinen, 1951)
  • The Wit and Wisdom of Bertand Russell, 1951
  • New Hopes for a Changing World, 1951
  • The Impact of Science on Society, 1952
  • Bertrand Russell's Dictionary of Mind. Matter, and Morals, 1952
  • Satan in the Suburbs and Other Stories, 1953 (illustrated by Asgeir Scott)
  • Nightmares of Eminent Persons and Other Stories, 1954 (illustrated by Charles W. Stewart)
  • Human Society in Ethics and Politics, 1954
    - Etiikka ja politiikka (suom. Kai Kaila, 1955)
  • Portraits from Memory and Other Essays., 1956
    - Muotokuvia muistista ja muita esseitä (suom. J.A. Hollo, 1957)
  • John Stuart Mill, 1956
  • Logic and Knowledge: Essays 1901–1950, 1956 (edited by Robert C. Marsh)
  • Understanding History, 1957
  • Why I Am Not A Christian and Other Essays on Religion and Related Subjects, 1957 (edited by Paul Edwards)
  • The Will to Doubt, 1958
  • Bertrand Russell's Best, 1958
  • The Vital Letters of Russell, Khrushchev, Dulles, 1958
  • Wisdom of the West, 1959 (edited by Paul Foulkes)
  • The Philosophy of Logical Atomism, 1959
  • The Future of Science, 1959
  • My Philosophical Development, 1959 (with an appendix, Russell’s philosophy, by Alan Wood)
  • Common Sense and Nuclear Warfare, 1959
  • On Education, 1960
  • Bertrand Russell Speaks His Mind, 1960
  • The Basic Writings of Bertrand Russell, 1961 (edited by R.E. Egner and L.E. Denonn)
  • Education of Character, 1961
  • Has Man Future?, 1961
  • Fact and Fiction, 1962
  • Essays in Skepticism, 1963
  • Unarmed Victory, 1963
  • On the Philosophy of Science, 1965 (edited by Charles A. Fritz, Jr.)
  • The Amberley Papers: Bertrand Russell's Family Background, 1966 (2 vols., edited by Bertrand Russell and Patricia Russell)
  • War Crimes in Vietnam, 1967
  • Russell's Peace Appeals, 1967 (edited by Tsutomu Makino and Kazuteru Hitaka)
  • The Autobiography of Bertrand Russell, 1967-69 (3 vols.)
    - Elämäni I-III (suom. Eila Pennanen, 1967-1969)
  • The Art of Philosophing, and Other Essays, 1968
  • Dear Bertrand Russell... , 1969 (edited by Barry Feinberg and Ronald Kasrils)
  • Atheism: Collected Essays, 1943-1949, 1972
  • The Collected Stories of Bertrand Russell, 1972 (compiled and edited by Barry Feinberg)
  • Russell's Logical Atomism, 1972 (edited and with an introduction by David Pears)
  • Essays in Analysis, 1973 (edited by Douglas Lackey)
  • Bertrand Russell: An Introduction, 1975 (edited by Brian Carr)
  • Mortals and Others: Bertrand Russell's American Essays, 1931-1935, 1975 (edited by Harry Ruja)
  • Cambridge Essays, 1888-99, 1983 (edited by Kenneth Blackwell, et al.)
  • The Collected Papers of Bertrand Russell, 1983- (projected 28 vols., edited by Kenneth Blackwell, et al.)
  • Contemplation and Action, 1902-14, 1985 (edited by Richard A. Rempel, Andrew Brink, and Margaret Moran)
  • The Philosophy of Logical Atomism and Other Essays, 1914-19, 1986 (edited by John G. Slater)
  • Essays on Language, Mind, and Matter, 1988 (edited by John G. Slater with the assistance of Bernd Frohmann)
  • Prophecy and Dissent, 1914-16, 1988 (edited by Richard A. Rempel et al.)
  • Philosophical Papers, 1896-1899, 1990 (edited by Nicholas Griffin and Albert C. Lewis)
  • Logical and Philosophical Papers, 1909-1913, 1992 (edited by John G. Slater with the assistance of Bernd Frohmann)
  • The Selected Letters of Bertrand Russell, 1992- (edited by Nicholas Griffin)
  • Foundations of Logic, 1993 (edited by Alasdair Urquhart with the assistance of Albert C. Lewis)
  • Toward the "Principles of Mathematics" 1900-1902, 1993 (edited by Gregory H. Moore)
  • The Quotable Bertrand Russell, 1993 (edited by Lee Eisler) 
  • Pacifism and Revolution, 1916-18, 1995 (edited by Richard A. Rempel et al.)
  • A Fresh look at Empiricism: 1927-42, 1996 (edited by John G. Slater with the assistance of Peter Köllner)
  • The Last Philosophical Testament 1943-68, 1998 (edited by John G. Slater with the assistance of Peter Köllner)
  • Mortals and Others: American Essays 1931-1935, 1998
  • Russell on Ethics: Selections from the Writings of Bertrand Russell, 1999 (edited by Charles R. Pigden)
  • Man’s Peril, 1954-55, 2003 (edited by Andrew G. Bone)
  • The Basic Writings of Bertrand Russell, 2010 (edited by Robert E. Egner and Lester E. Denonn, with an introduction by John G. Slater)
  • The Conquest of Happiness, 2013 (with a new introduction by Daniel C. Dennett)
  • The Impact of Science on Society, 2016 (with a foreword by the Tim Sluckin)
  • In Praise of Idleness, 2017  (with a new introduction by Bradley Trevor Greive)

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