A History of Western Philosophy | Study Guide

Bertrand Russell

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Bertrand Russell | Biography


Bertrand Arthur William Russell, Third Earl of Kingston Russell and Viscount of Amberley, was born May 18, 1872, in Trellech, Monmouthshire, Wales, in Great Britain. Russell's mother and sister died of diphtheria, a nose and throat infection, in 1874, and his father died of bronchitis, an inflammation of the tubes that carry air to and from the lungs, two years later, so the philosopher barely knew his freethinking parents.

Early Life

Russell's father had granted custody of his sons (Russell and his older brother Frank) to atheist friends, but their paternal grandparents had the will overturned. As a result the boys were raised by their grandmother, Lady Russell, after her husband died when Russell was five. While Frank was sent away to school, Russell's early education was by tutors at home, under the supervision of the highly educated and religious Lady Russell. Russell learned French, German, and mathematics from an early age and began to have doubts about Christianity in his adolescence. He entered Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1890, where he met English mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, with whom he would later collaborate on Principia Mathematica (1910). Awarded high honors in mathematics in 1893, Russell became interested in philosophy and won a fellowship based on his thesis, An Essay on the Foundations of Geometry, published as his first philosophical work in 1897. He won a first-class degree with distinction in philosophy in 1894 and was elected as a fellow to Trinity in 1895.

Work in Political Science and Mathematics

In the years 1894–96, Russell married his first wife, Alys Pearsall Smith, and became an agnostic, or someone who neither categorically denies nor asserts the existence of a divine being or first cause. He also formulated a plan to write two books—one on the philosophy of the sciences and the other on social and political issues. The couple visited Berlin in 1895, which resulted in Russell's first political treatise, German Social Democracy (1896). Russell sympathized with the Socialists in Germany but was critical of the dogma of German philosopher Karl Marx. Socialism is a democratically controlled economy in which unregulated capitalism is replaced with regulated commerce and some level of community and/or government control. Karl Marx advocated for a more radical form of socialism in which the means of production is owned by the working class.

Shortly after writing his book on socialism, Russell abandoned the metaphysical idealism of German philosophers Immanuel Kant and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel; Russell rejected the notion of any kind of absolute, timeless substance beyond or behind the physical world. Rather, he was interested in creating a precise philosophy of mathematics that would be scientific and rigorous. Russell had acquainted himself with the work of German mathematicians who wanted to prove mathematics could be grounded in a foundation of logic. He came to the conclusion that analysis, not synthesis, was the way for philosophy to move forward. Analytic and synthetic propositions in philosophy differ in that analytic statements are based on sensory data (either one's own or data collected by others), while synthetic statements are based on reasoning about sensory data.

Inspired by the work of the Germans, Russell wanted to show mathematics was nothing but logic—an idea later called logicism. His ideas were elaborated in The Principles of Mathematics, published in 1903. Before publication he quickly added an appendix when Russell learned German mathematician Gottlob Frege had anticipated some of his ideas. The appendix discusses Frege's earlier discoveries. In his own treatise Russell also elaborates on his discovery of a contradiction at the heart of logicism, dubbed "Russell's Paradox," which continued to be a stumbling block in his development of an all-encompassing logical system. The contradiction is that in some sets (classes of objects), members are also members of themselves (the class of all classes) and some are not (for example, the class of human beings). The class of all classes is the set that includes everything that can be thought of—for example, the entire set of all biological living things on Earth. Thus it should be possible to create a set (a class of all classes) that is not a member of itself. But such an idea is a contradiction. Is the class of all biological things a member of itself? The answer is yes and no.

Russell continued to wrestle with his paradox, which resulted in a theory of types and other logical innovations published in a three-volume work written with Whitehead and titled Principia Mathematica. Their groundbreaking work was published from 1910 to 1913. Immensely important in the development of the philosophy of mathematics, their theory of descriptions helped remove the logical awkwardness of appearing to refer to things that do not exist. Nonetheless, Austrian American mathematician and philosopher Kurt Gödel proved no single theory can be used to derive the whole of mathematics and all consistent theories of arithmetic are necessarily incomplete. Russell wrote subsequent philosophical works focusing on epistemology (theory of knowledge), arguing the world is made of sense data. He eventually replaced this idea with "neutral monism," or the theory that the "ultimate stuff" of the world was neither mental nor physical but something between the two.

Russell and Morrell and Wittgenstein

While Russell continued his philosophical work, his marriage deteriorated. In 1911 he fell in love with the married Lady Ottoline Morrell, although she did not want to leave her husband. Russell finally left his wife, however, and began writing, partly due to Morrell's influence, in a style suited for a general audience. This resulted in a best-selling survey of philosophy called The Problems of Philosophy, published in 1911. Russell also met the young Austrian British philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, who had come to Cambridge to study logic with him. Wittgenstein ended up publishing a text undermining Russell's approach to the subject. This led Russell to give up writing technical philosophy and begin pursuing other interests. In fact he abandoned a companion volume to the Principia Mathematica, which would have had epistemology (theory of knowledge) as its subject because of Wittgenstein's criticisms of his work.

Agitator for Peace and Political Change

Russell worked full time as a peace warrior after the British entered World War I (1914–18). He ended up serving six months in prison at the end of the war. In 1916 he was fired from his professorship at Trinity College because of his antiwar activities. The college offered to rehire him after the war, but Russell instead became a journalist and freelance writer. The war pushed him from liberalism to socialism, and he expressed his Socialist ideas in a number of books. He continued promoting a Socialist and progressive agenda with his new wife, Dora Black. They married in 1921 and had two children. Russell expanded the scope of his writing to include education, morality, and social issues. During this period he delivered his famous public lecture on "Why I Am Not a Christian." In 1927 the couple opened a progressive school, Beacon Hill, and Russell lectured in the United States. Since both Russell and his wife did not follow conventional morality, Dora had two children with another man. Eventually the couple could not resolve their differences, and Russell married Patricia Spence in 1937 and had another child who grew up to be a prominent historian.

Russell lived in the United States from 1938 until 1944, first teaching at the University of Chicago and then at the University of California, Los Angeles. He was hired by City College of New York, but his appointment was revoked because of complaints about his morals. Then he was hired by the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia to lecture on philosophy. These lectures formed the basis for what became A History of Western Philosophy. He lost his job at the foundation after a falling out with the founder. In 1944 he returned to Trinity College and finally lost his status as a pariah. He received the Order of Merit from the British Government in 1949 and the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1950, in large part because of his work on A History of Western Philosophy, which was also a best-selling book and a major source of income. However, his third marriage also fell apart.

Final Years

Russell married for the fourth and final time in 1952, to Edith Finch, at age 80. In 1955 he and German theoretical physicist Albert Einstein signed and released a declaration to world leaders calling for an end to war in the age of nuclear weapons, which threatened the continued existence of the human race. He spent his remaining years involved in peace work, campaigning against nuclear weapons and in the 1960s against the Vietnam War. The Vietnam War (1955–75) was a conflict between Communist North Vietnam and the autocratic nationalist government of South Vietnam in which the United States supported South Vietnam because it was anti-Communist. Russell took part in mass demonstrations and incited young people to commit acts of civil disobedience in the name of peace. In 1961 when Russell was 89, he was sentenced to jail time for his role in antinuclear protests, although he ended up spending only a week in the prison hospital. Russell died on February 2, 1970, at age 97. While at the time he was best known as a social critic, he is remembered as an essayist, logician, and philosopher of mathematics. He produced 70 books and many articles in his lifetime and refined Frege's predicate calculus, the basis for most contemporary systems of logic. Together with English philosopher George Edward Moore, he is the founder of modern analytic philosophy. His and Whitehead's Principia Mathematica remains an important text in the study of logic.

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