Bertrand Arthur William Russell, the third Earl Russell, was one of the most influential mathematicians, philosophers and logicians working (mostly) in the 20th century, an important political liberal, activist and a popularizer 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 naive 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 king of France at present: which if 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.
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 Pacifisim" -- he held that war was always a great evil, but in some particularly extreme circumstances (such as when 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 a peace-loving foundation, Russell shocked most of his listeners by advocating 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, released a manifesto together 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 American war crimes.
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 inconsistancies 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.
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 mother died when he was 2, his father died when he was 4. He was raised by his grandparents, the former prime minister Lord John Russell and his wife Frances. His godfather was Utilitarian philosopher John Stuart Mill.
Russell first met the American Quaker, Alys Pearsall Smith, when he was seventeen years old. Russell fell in love with the puritanical, high-minded Alys, 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 and Constance Malleson.
Russell studied philosophy and logic at Cambridge University, starting in 1890. He joined the faculty 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. Their children were John Russell and Katharine Russell. 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, in 1936 he took as his third wife an attractive Oxford undergraduate, Patricia ("Peter") Spence. She had been his children's governess in the summer of 1930.
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.
The Bertrand Russell Society
The Bertrand Russell Gallery
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on Russell
The Bertrand Russell Archives
Bertrand Russell Resources listing on eJournal website
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