Bertrand Arthur William Russell (May 18, 1872-Penrhyndeudraeth, Gwynedd, February 2, 1970) was a British philosopher, mathematician, logician and writer, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. Third Earl of Russell, he belonged to one of the most prominent aristocratic families in the United Kingdom. He was the son of the Viscount of Amberley, John Russell, and godson of the utilitarian philosopher John Stuart Mill, whose writings had a great influence on his life. He married four times and had three children.
In the early 20th century, Russell led the British “revolt against idealism”. He is known for his influence on analytic philosophy along with Gottlob Frege, his colleague G. E. Moore and his pupil Ludwig Wittgenstein and A. N. Whitehead, co-author of his Principia Mathematica. He supported the idea of a scientific philosophy and proposed to apply logical analysis to traditional problems, such as the mind-body problem or the existence of the physical world. His philosophical essay On Denotation has been considered a “paradigm of philosophy. His work has had considerable influence on mathematics, logic, set theory, artificial intelligence, cognitive science, computer science, philosophy of language, epistemology, metaphysics, ethics and politics.
Russell was a leading pacifist social activist against war and advocated anti-imperialism. Throughout his life, Russell considered himself a liberal and a socialist, although he also sometimes suggested that his skepticism had led him to feel that he had “never been either of these things, in a deep sense.” He served time in prison for his pacifism during World War I. He was imprisoned for his pacifism during World War II. He later concluded that World War II against Hitler was a necessary lesser evil and also criticized Stalinist totalitarianism, condemned U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, and was an outspoken advocate of nuclear disarmament. In 1950, Russell received the Nobel Prize for Literature “in recognition of his varied and significant writings in which he defends humanitarian ideals and freedom of thought.”
Bertrand Russell was the son of John Russell, Viscount Amberley, and Katrine Louisa Stanley. His paternal grandfather was Lord John Russell, 1st Earl of Russell, who was twice Prime Minister under Queen Victoria. His maternal grandfather was Edward Stanley, 2nd Baron Stanley of Alderley. He was also the godson of John Stuart Mill, who exerted – although he never met Russell – a profound influence on his political thought through his writings.
Russell was orphaned at the age of six, after the death of his sister and mother due to diphtheria and then of his father, who could not recover from the loss of his wife and daughter and finally let himself die in 1878. Russell and his brother Frank moved to Pembroke Lodge, an official Crown residence, where by royal favor lived his grandfather Lord John and his grandmother Lady Russell, who would be responsible for educating him. Although his parents had been radical liberals, his grandmother, although liberal in politics, was of very strict moral ideas, turning Russell into a shy, withdrawn and solitary child. He used to spend a lot of time in his grandfather”s library, where he precociously demonstrated a great love of literature and history. The gardens of the house were a favorite place for little Russell and many of the happiest moments of his childhood were spent there, meditating in solitude.
The repressive and conservative environment of Pembroke Lodge produced numerous conflicts for Russell during his adolescence. Not being able to freely express his opinion regarding religion (the existence of God, free will, the immortality of the soul…) or sex, as his ideas on the subject would have been considered scandalous, he hid his thoughts from everyone and led a solitary existence, writing his reflections in a notebook using the Greek alphabet to pass them off as school exercises. He did not go to school, but was educated by various tutors and preceptors, from whom he learned, among other things, to master French and German perfectly.
At the age of eleven Russell began the study of Euclidean geometry with his brother as his teacher, finding the whole thing as wonderful as first love. Being able to prove a proposition gave Russell immense satisfaction, which, however, was frustrated when his brother told him that he would have to accept certain axioms without question or else they could not follow, which disappointed him deeply. He ended up reluctantly admitting them, but his doubts about those axioms would mark his work.
In 1890, Russell entered Trinity College, Cambridge, to study mathematics. His examiner was Alfred North Whitehead, with whom he later co-authored three books known under the generic title Principia Mathematica. Whitehead was so impressed by the young Russell that he recommended him to the intellectual discussion society The Apostles, a group of bright young Cambridge men who met to discuss any subject without taboos, in an intellectually stimulating and honest atmosphere. After many years of solitude, Russell was finally able to express his opinions and ideas to a number of intelligent young people who did not regard him with suspicion. Gradually Bertrand lost his rigidity and shyness and began to integrate among the students.
Russell concluded his studies in mathematics, obtaining a meritorious examination that placed him as a seventh wrangler, a distinctive mark that was recognized in the academic framework where he moved. During his fourth year at Cambridge, in 1894, Russell studied Moral Science (the name by which Philosophy was known). By this time Russell had befriended George Edward Moore, a young classics student whom Russell had persuaded to switch to philosophy.
Around the same time, Russell had met and fallen in love with Alys Pearsall Smith, a cultured young woman from an American Quaker family. Despite being several years older than him, she had captivated him with her beauty as well as her convictions, ideas and way of seeing the world. They married the same year of Russell”s graduation.
In 1900 he wrote The Principles of Mathematics and shortly afterwards he would begin his collaboration with A. N. Whitehead to write the three volumes of the Principia Mathematica, which would be his masterpiece and in which he intended to reduce mathematics to logic.
Russell”s extra-academic work led him to undertake numerous trips in which the philosopher observed first-hand the situation in different countries and met with the relevant personalities of the time. Thus, he traveled twice to Germany with Alys in 1895, and the following year he would travel to the United States. Later, in 1920, together with a delegation of the British Labor Party, he went to Russia and met with Lenin, a trip that would put an end to the hopes he initially had regarding the changes that communism would produce. Shortly afterwards, together with Dora Black, who in 1921 would end up being his second wife, he traveled to China and stayed there for a year, returning to England via Japan and the United States. The stay in China proved very fruitful, and Russell appreciated in its culture such values as tolerance, imperturbability, dignity and, in general, an attitude that valued life, beauty and pleasure in a different way from the Western one, which he considered valuable. All these trips were translated into books, articles or lectures.
Russell was a known pacifist during World War I, which eventually landed him in jail for six months for publishing articles and pamphlets.
With his second wife, Dora Black, he established an infant school on Beacon Hill, London, from 1927 to 1932, inspired by a progressive and carefree pedagogy that was intended to be free of prejudice. The school reflected Russell”s idea that children should not be forced to follow a strict academic curriculum.
In 1936 he celebrated his third marriage with Patricia Spence, and in 1938 he was called to the University of Chicago to give lectures in Philosophy. It was while he was there that World War II broke out, and this time he went from the pacifism shown in the first war to a clear support for the Allied forces against the Nazi army, arguing that a world where fascism was the reigning ideology would be a world where the best of civilization would have died and would not be worth living in.
In 1940 he was prevented from teaching the mathematics course he had been assigned to at New York University, and this led to an extremely harsh controversy that provoked passionate protests in some circles: he was reproached for his unusually crude exposition of his opinions about sexual life, which was supposed to have an unfortunate influence on his students.
After World War II, Russell devotes himself fully to the task of preventing nuclear war and securing peace through proper international organization, beginning a period of political activism that would lead to his second imprisonment at the age of 90.
In 1950 he received the Nobel Prize for Literature “in recognition of his varied and significant writings in which he defends humanitarian ideals and freedom of thought”.
In 1952, at the age of eighty, he was united in fourth marriage to Edith Finch, in whose arms he died peacefully in 1970, aged 97. His body was cremated in Colwyn Bay on February 5 with five people present. In accordance with her wishes, there was no religious ceremony, but a minute”s silence; her ashes were scattered in the mountains of Wales later that year. He left an estate valued at £69,423 (equivalent to £1.1 million in 2020).
After his death, Trinity College Cambridge, his second home, paid tribute to him. Today, a commemorative plaque in his memory reads:
The third Earl Russell, O.M., professor of this college, was particularly famous as a writer and interpreter of mathematical logic. Overwhelmed by human bitterness, in advanced age, but with the enthusiasm of a young man, he devoted himself entirely to the preservation of peace among nations, until finally, distinguished with numerous honors and with the respect of the whole world, he found rest for his efforts in 1970, at the age of 97.
In the opinion of many, Bertrand Russell was possibly the most influential philosopher of the twentieth century, at least in English-speaking countries, considered along with Gottlob Frege as one of the founders of analytic philosophy. He is also considered one of the most important logicians of the 20th century. He wrote on a wide range of topics, from the foundations of mathematics and the theory of relativity to marriage, women”s rights and pacifism. He also polemicized on birth control, women”s rights, the immorality of nuclear weapons, and on the shortcomings of the arguments and reasons for the existence of God. In his writings he displayed a magnificent literary style full of irony, sarcasm and metaphors that led him to win the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Russell is recognized as one of the founders of analytic philosophy, in fact, he initiated several avenues of inquiry. At the beginning of the 20th century, together with G. E. Moore, Russell was largely responsible for the “British rebellion against idealism”, a philosophy largely influenced by Georg Hegel and his British disciple, F. H. Bradley. This rebellion had repercussions 30 years later in Vienna, in the so-called “rebellion against metaphysics” led by the logical positivists. Russell was especially displeased by the idealistic doctrine of internal relations, which holds that in order to know a particular thing, one must first know all its relations. Russell showed that such a position would render space, time, science and the concept of number meaningless. Russell together with Whitehead continued to work in this field of logic.
Russell and Moore strove to eliminate assumptions from philosophy that they found absurd and incoherent, to come to see clarity and precision in argumentation by the exact use of language and by the division of philosophical propositions into simpler components. Russell, in particular, saw logic and science as the philosopher”s main tool. Thus, unlike most philosophers who preceded him and his contemporaries, Russell did not believe that there was a specific method for philosophy. He believed that the main task of the philosopher was to clarify the more generic propositions about the world and to eliminate confusion. In particular, he wanted to do away with the excesses of metaphysics. Russell adopted the methods of William of Ockham on the principle of avoiding multiplicity of entities for the same use, Ockham”s razor, as a central part of the method of analysis and realism.
Theory of knowledge
Russell”s theory of knowledge went through many phases. Once he had discarded neo-Hegelanism in his youth, Russell consolidated himself as a philosophical realist for the rest of his life, believing that our direct experiences play the primary role in the acquisition of knowledge.
In his later philosophical stage, Russell adopted a kind of “neutral monism,” holding that the differentiation between the material and mental worlds was, in his final analysis, arbitrary, and that both can be reduced to a neutral sphere, a view similar to that held by the American philosopher William James and first formulated by Baruch Spinoza, much admired by Russell. However, instead of James”s “pure experience,” Russell characterized the essence of our initial states of perception as “events,” a position curiously similar to the process philosophy of his former teacher Alfred North Whitehead.
Although Russell wrote on numerous ethical topics, he did not believe that the subject matter belonged to philosophy, nor that he wrote it by virtue of being a philosopher. At his early stage, Russell was greatly influenced by G. E. Moore”s Principia ethica. Along with Moore, he believed that moral facts were objective, but that they were known only through intuition, and that they were simple properties of objects, not equivalent (e.g., pleasure is good) to the natural objects with which they are usually associated (see naturalistic fallacy), and that these simple indefinable moral properties could not be analyzed using the non-moral properties with which they were associated.
Eventually, however, he ended up standing with his philosophical hero, David Hume, who believed that ethical terms handled with subjective values could not be verified in the same way as tangible facts. Along with Russell”s other doctrines, this influenced the logical positivists, who formulated the theory of emotivism, which held that ethical propositions (along with those pertaining to metaphysics) were essentially nonsense, or at best, something more than expressions of attitudes and preferences. Despite his influence on them, Russell did not interpret ethical propositions as narrowly as the positivists: for him ethical considerations were not only meaningful, but were objects of vital importance to civil discourse. In fact, although Russell was often characterized as the standard-bearer of rationality, he agreed with Hume, who said that reason should be subordinated to ethical considerations.
Perhaps the most systematic and metaphysical treatment of philosophical analysis is to be found in his empiricist logicism, evident in what he called “logical atomism””, spelled out in a series of lectures called The Philosophy of Logical Atomism. In those lectures, Russell expounds his concept of an ideal, isomorphic language, one that would reflect the world, where our knowledge can be reduced to terms of atomic propositions and their truth function components (mathematical logic). For Russell logical atomism is a radical form of empiricism. The philosopher believed that the most important requirement for such an ideal language is that every meaningful proposition be constructed with terms that refer directly to objects familiar to us. Russell excluded certain logical and formal terms such as “all” (all), “the” (the), “is” (is), and so on, from his isomorphic requirement, but he was never completely satisfied with respect to our understanding of such terms.
One of the central themes of Russell”s atomism is that the world consists of logically independent facts, a plurality of facts, and that our knowledge depends on the data of our direct experience with them.
Later in his life, Russell began to doubt aspects of logical atomism, especially its principle of isomorphism, although he continued to believe that the task of philosophy should be to break down problems into their simplest components, even though we would never reach the ultimate atomic truth (fact).
Logic and philosophy of mathematics
Russell had a great influence on modern mathematical logic. The American philosopher and logician Willard Quine said that Russell”s work represented the greatest influence on his own work.
Russell”s first mathematical book, An essay on the foundations of geometry, was published in 1897. This work was strongly influenced by Immanuel Kant. Russell soon realized that the applied concept would make impossible Albert Einstein”s space-time scheme, which he regarded as superior to his own systems. From then on, he rejected Kant”s entire program as it related to mathematics and geometry, and held that his earlier work in that area was worthless.
Interested in the definition of number, Russell studied the works of George Boole, Georg Cantor and Augustus De Morgan, while in the Bertrand Russell Archives at McMaster University are notes of his readings in algebraic logic by Charles Sanders Peirce and Ernst Schröder. He became convinced that the foundations of mathematics would be found in logic, and following Gottlob Frege he applied an extensionist approach where logic in turn was based on set theory. In 1900 he participated in the first International Congress of Philosophy in Paris, where he became acquainted with the work of the Italian mathematician Giuseppe Peano. He became an expert on Peano”s new symbolism and his set of axioms for arithmetic. Peano logically defined all the terms of these axioms with the exception of 0, number, successor and the singular term “the”, which were primitives of his system. Russell set himself the task of finding logical definitions for each of these. Between 1897 and 1903 he published several papers applying Peano”s notation to the classical Boole-Schröder algebra of relations, among them “On the notion of order”, “Sur la logique des relations avec les applications à la théorie des séries”, and “On cardinal numbers”.
Russell eventually discovered that Gottlob Frege had independently arrived at equivalent definitions for 0, successor and number; the definition of number is now referred to as the Frege-Russell definition. It was largely Russell who brought Frege to the attention of the English-speaking world. He did this in 1903, when he published Principia mathematica, in which the concept of class is inextricably linked to the definition of number. The appendix to this work detailed a paradox arising in Frege”s application to second-and higher-order functions that took first-order functions as arguments, and then offered his first effort at resolving what would later become known as Russell”s paradox. Before writing Principles, Russell had learned of Cantor”s proof that there was no such thing as the largest cardinal number, which Russell considered a mistake. The Cantor Paradox in turn was regarded (e.g., by Crossley) as a special case of Russell”s Paradox. This led Russell to analyze classes, where it was known that, given any number of elements, the number of resulting classes is greater than their number. This, in turn, led to the discovery of a very interesting class, called the class of all classes. It contains two types of classes: those classes that contain themselves, and those that do not. Consideration of this class led him to find a serious fault in the so-called principle of comprehension, which had already been assumed by the logicians of the time. He showed that it resulted in a contradiction, where Y is a member of Y, if and only if, Y is not a member of Y. This has come to be known as Russell”s Paradox, the solution which was outlined in an appendix to Principles, and which he later developed as a complete theory, type theory. Apart from exposing a major inconsistency in intuitionistic set theory, Russell”s work led directly to the creation of axiomatic set theory. This stalled Frege”s project of reducing arithmetic to logic. Type theory and much of Russell”s subsequent work have found practical applications in computer science and information technology.
Russell continued to champion logicism, the view that mathematics is, in an important sense, reducible to logic, and, together with his former teacher Alfred North Whitehead, wrote the monumental Principia Mathematica, an axiomatic system on which all mathematics can be based. The first volume of Principia was published in 1910, and is largely attributed to Russell. More than any other work, it established the specialty of mathematical or symbolic logic. Two more volumes were published, but his original plan to incorporate geometry in a fourth volume was never carried out, and Russell never improved on the original works, although he referred to new developments and problems in his preface to the second edition. Upon completing Principia Mathematica, three volumes of extraordinary abstract and complex reasoning, Russell was exhausted, and never felt he had fully recovered his intellectual faculties from such an effort. Although Principia did not fall prey to Frege”s paradoxes, Kurt Gödel later showed that neither Principia Mathematica, nor any other consistent system of primitive recursive arithmetic could, within that system, determine that every proposition that could be formulated within that system was decidable, that is, could decide whether that proposition or its negation was provable within the system (Gödel”s Incompleteness Theorem).
Russell”s last significant work in mathematics and logic, Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy, was handwritten while he was in prison for his antiwar activities during World War I. It was primarily an explanation of his earlier work and its philosophical significance. This work was primarily an explanation of his earlier work and its philosophical significance.
Philosophy of language
Russell was not the first philosopher to suggest that language had an important significance in how we understand the world; however, more than anyone before him, Russell made language, or more specifically, how we use language, a central part of philosophy. Without Russell, it seems unlikely that philosophers such as Ludwig Wittgenstein, Gilbert Ryle, J. L. Austin, and P. F. Strawson, among others, would have embarked on the same course, however much what they did was to amplify or respond, sometimes critically, to what Russell had said before them, using many of the techniques he originally developed. Russell, in conjunction with Moore, shared the idea that clarity of expression was a virtue, a notion that has since been a point of reference for philosophers, particularly among those dealing with the philosophy of language.
Perhaps Russell”s most significant contribution to the philosophy of language is his theory of descriptions, presented in his essay On denoting, first published in 1905 in the Journal of Mind Philosophy, which mathematician and philosopher Frank P. Ramsey described as “a paradigm of philosophy.” The theory is usually illustrated using the phrase “the present king of France”, as in “the present king of France is bald”. What object is this proposition about, given that there is at present no king of France? (The same problem would arise if there were at present two kings of France: to which of them does “the” king of France refer?) Alexius Meinong had suggested that we should assume the existence of a realm of “non-existent entities” that we can suppose about which we are referring when we use expressions like that; but this would be a strange theory, to say the least. Frege, employing his distinction between sense and reference, suggested that such sentences, though meaningful, were neither true nor false. But some such propositions, such as “if the present king of France is bald, then the present king of France has no hair on his head,” seem not only true in their value but indeed obviously true.
The problem is general to what are called “definite descriptions”. Usually this includes all terms beginning with “the”, and sometimes it includes names, such as “Walter Scott” (this point is rather controversial: Russell sometimes thought that the latter should not be called by any name, but only “covert definite descriptions”; however, in later work they have been treated as entirely different things). What is the “logical form” of definite descriptions: how, in Frege”s terms, might we paraphrase them so as to show how the truth of that whole depends on the truths of the parts? Definite descriptions appear as names that by their very nature indicate exactly one thing, no more and no less. Who, then, are we to say anything about the proposition as a whole if one of its parts is apparently not functioning correctly?
Russell”s solution was, first of all, to analyze not the term by itself, but the whole proposition containing a definite description. “The present king of France is bald,” he then suggested, can be restated as “There exists an x such that he is the present king of France, nothing else than that x is the present king of France, and x is bald.” Russell required that every definite description in effect contain an assertion of existence and an assertion of uniqueness that gives this appearance, but these can be decomposed and treated separately from the assertion that is the obvious content of the proposition. The proposition 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 remainder. If the object does not exist, or if it is not unique, then the whole sentence turns out to be false, though not meaningless.
One of the major complaints against Russell”s theory, originally due to Strawson, is that definite descriptions do not demand that their object exists, they only presuppose that it does. Strawson also points out that a sentence that does not indicate anything can be supposed to follow the role of Widgy”s “inverted truth-value” and express the opposite meaning of the intended sentence. This can be shown using the example of “The current king of France is bald”. Applying the methodology of the inverted truth value the meaning of this sentence becomes “It is true that there is no current king of France who is bald” which changes the meaning of “the current king of France” from a primary to a secondary one.
Wittgenstein, a student of Russell, achieved considerable prominence in the philosophy of language after the posthumous publication of Philosophical Investigations. In Russell”s view, Wittgenstein”s later work was not properly directed, and he discredited his influence and followers (especially members of the so-called “Oxford school” of ordinary philosophy of language, whom he saw as promoting a kind of mysticism). Russell”s belief that the task of philosophy is not limited to examining common or ordinary language is again widely accepted in philosophy.
Philosophy of science
Russell often proclaimed that he was more convinced of his method of doing philosophy, the method of analysis, than of his philosophical conclusions. Science, of course, was one of the major components of analysis, along with logic and mathematics. While Russell was an advocate of the scientific method, knowledge derived from empirical investigation that is verified through repeated testing, he believed that science obtains only tentative answers, and that scientific progress is built up piecemeal, trying to find considerably futile organic units. Indeed, he held the same for philosophy. Another founder of the modern philosophy of science, Ernst Mach, placed less confidence in the method, per se, believing that any method that produced predictable results was satisfactory and that the scientist”s primary role was to make successful predictions. While Russell would no doubt agree with this as a practical matter, he believed that the fundamental aim of science and philosophy was to understand reality, not simply to make predictions.
The fact that Russell made science a central part of his method and philosophy was instrumental in making philosophy of science a complete and separate branch in philosophy, and an area in which subsequent philosophers specialized. Much of Russell”s thinking about science is set out in his 1914 book, Our knowledge of the external world as a field for scientific method in philosophy. Among the various schools that were influenced by Russell were the logical positivists, particularly Rudolph Carnap, who maintained that the distinguishing characteristic of scientific propositions was their verifiability. This contrasted with the theory of Karl Popper, also heavily influenced by Russell, who believed that their importance rested on the fact that they were potentially falsifiable.
It is worth noting that outside of strictly philosophical pursuits, Russell was always fascinated by science, particularly physics, and was even the author of several popular science books, such as The ABC of atoms (1923) and The ABC of relativity (1925).
Religion and theology
Russell”s ethical outlook and personal courage in dealing with controversy were certainly shaped by his upbringing and religious education, especially that given by his paternal grandmother, who instructed him with the biblical precept “Thou shalt not follow a multitude to do evil” (Book of Exodus 23:2), something that, according to Russell himself, had influenced him for life.
As a young man, Russell had a decidedly religious bent, as is evident in the Platonism of his earliest days. He longed for absolute truths, as he makes clear in his famous essay A Free Man”s Worship, widely regarded as a prose masterpiece, but a work that came to displease Russell himself. While he rejected the supernatural, he freely admitted that he longed for a deeper meaning to life. Although he would later question the existence of God, in his student years, he fully accepted the Ontological Argument:
For three or four years I was a Hegelian. I remember the exact moment when I adopted this doctrine. It was in 1894, as I was walking down Trinity Lane [at Cambridge University, where Russell was studying]. I had gone out to buy a tin of tobacco. On the way back I suddenly threw it in the air, and exclaimed, “Wow, the ontological argument is sound!”.
This quote has been used over the years by many theologians, such as Louis Pojman in Philosophy of Religion, to convince readers that even a well-known atheist philosopher defends this argument for the existence of God. However, in his adult life, Russell thought it highly unlikely that there was a god, and held that religion was little more than superstition. He would later criticize this argument:
The argument does not seem very convincing to a modern mind, but it is easier to feel the conviction that it must be false than to find precisely where the falsehood lies.
According to his theory of descriptions, Russell made a distinction between existence and essence, arguing that the essence of a person can be described and his existence still remains in question. He himself went so far as to assert that:
The real question is: is there anything we can think about that, just because we can think about it, seems possible to exist outside of our thinking? Philosophers would like to say yes, because a philosopher”s job is to find out things about the world by thought rather than observation. If the correct answer is “yes,” there is a bridge from pure thought to things. If not, no.
As for the cosmological argument, Russell admits that it is more acceptable than the ontological argument and cannot be refuted so easily. However, Russell himself also mentions in the above-mentioned autobiography the following reflection:
I did not believe in an afterlife, but I did believe in God, for the first-cause argument seemed irrefutable. But at the age of eighteen, shortly before I entered Cambridge, I read John Stuart Mill”s autobiography, in which he explained how his father taught him that one cannot ask “Who created me?”, since this question would entail the question “Who created God?”. This led me to abandon the first cause argument and to start being an atheist.
Russell argued in “On the Notion of Cause” (1912) that the law of causality, as usually asserted by philosophers, is false and is not used in the sciences. For example, “in the motion of mutually gravitating bodies, there is nothing that can be called a cause and nothing that can be called an effect; there is simply a formula.”
In a BBC radio debate with Frederick Copleston, Russell follows Hume by arguing that we cannot ask about the cause of something like the universe that we cannot experience. That is, although everything within the universe requires a cause, it does not follow that the universe itself must have one (fallacy of composition). Russell rejected Leibniz”s principle of sufficient reason, reducing the universe to a simple brute fact, of which its existence does not require an explanation.
I can illustrate what seems to me to be your fallacy. Every man that exists has a mother, and it seems that your argument is that therefore the human race must have a mother, but obviously the human race does not have a mother, that is a different sphere of logic. I should say that the universe is there, and that is all.
Russell also made an influential analysis of the Omphalos Hypothesis enunciated by Philip Henry Gosse-that any argument that the world was created already in motion (God would have created an already evolved world, with mountains, gorges, or the example of the navel, omphalos in Greek, in Adam and Eve) could be applied to a planet Earth a few thousand years old as well as to one originating five minutes ago:
There is no logical impossibility in the hypothesis that the world was created five minutes ago, with a population that “remembers” a completely unreal past. There is no logically necessary connection between events of different epochs; therefore, nothing that happens now or will happen in the future can disprove the hypothesis that the world began five minutes ago.
Russell”s views on religion can be found in his well-known book, Why I am not a Christian and other essays on religion and related subjects (ISBN 0-671-20323-1). The title was a talk given on March 6, 1927, which a year later was published as a book. This text also contains other essays in which Russell considers a number of logical arguments for the non-existence of God, including the cosmological or first cause argument, the natural law argument, the teleological argument, and moral arguments.
Religion is based, I think, primarily on fear. It is partly the terror of the unknown, as I have already said, the longing to feel that you have a big brother who always protects you and is there for you. A good world needs knowledge, kindness and courage; it does not need a pitiful longing for the past or the burden on the free use of intelligence of words spoken long ago by ignorant people.
In his 1949 speech, Am I an atheist or an agnostic, Russell expressed his difficulty about whether to call himself an atheist or an agnostic:
As a philosopher, if I were addressing a strictly philosophical audience, I should say that I would be obliged to describe myself as an agnostic, because I do not believe that there is a conclusive argument by which one proves that there is no God. On the other hand, if I am to communicate the correct impression to the common man on the street, I think I should have to say that I am an atheist, because when I say that I cannot prove that there is no God, I should on the other hand add that I cannot prove that there are no Homeric gods.
In this same speech, Russell exemplifies with his teapot analogy that the burden of proof for these kinds of questions rests on the person making these claims regardless of the fact that a skeptic cannot refute it.
Russell wrote some books on practical ethical issues such as marriage. His views in this field are liberal. He argues that sexual relations outside marriage are relatively acceptable. In his 1954 book Human society in ethics and politics, he argues in favor of the view that we should attend to moral issues from the point of view of the desires of individuals. Individuals can do what they want, as long as there are no incompatible desires between different individuals. Desires are not evil in themselves, but sometimes their power or actual consequences are. Russell also writes that punishment is important only in an instrumental sense, and should never be used without justification.
It would be difficult to ponder Russell”s influence on modern philosophy, especially in the English-speaking world. While others were also notably influential, Frege, Moore and Wittgenstein, more than anyone else Russell made analysis the dominant approach to philosophy. He contributed to virtually all areas from the same methodology: always advocating analysis and alerting philosophers to the pitfalls of language, thus laying down the method and motivations of analytic philosophy and being, if not the founder, then at least the main promoter of its major branches and themes, including various versions of the philosophy of language, formal logical analysis, and the philosophy of science. We owe several analytic movements of the last century to Russell”s early work. His contributions of content include his undeniable master article On Denoting and a series of books and articles on problems from the philosophy of mathematics, metaphysics, epistemology, scientific inference, and ethics to a number of interesting and fertile approaches to the mind-body problem, approaches discussed today by a variety of important philosophers such as David Chalmers, Michael Lockwood, Thomas Nagel, Grover Maxwell, Mario Bunge, etc.
Russell”s influence on each philosopher is particular, and perhaps this is most noticeable in the case of Ludwig Wittgenstein, who was his pupil between 1911 and 1914. It should also be noted that Wittgenstein exerted considerable influence on Russell, especially in showing him the way to come to the conclusion, to his regret, that mathematical truth was only tautological truths. Evidence of Russell”s influence on Wittgenstein can be seen everywhere in the Tractatus, where Russell contributed to its publication. Russell also helped in securing Wittgenstein”s doctorate along with a position on the Cambridge faculty, in addition to several fellowships. However, as previously mentioned, Russell later came to disagree with Wittgenstein”s linguistic and analytical approach to philosophy, while Wittgenstein came to think of Russell as “shallow,” particularly in his more popular writings. Russell”s influence is also evident in the work of A. J. Ayer, Carnap, Kurt Gödel, Karl Popper, W. V. Quine, and other philosophers and logicians. “In the philosophizing of our day there is little of importance that does not derive from him” asserted Alan Wood in his finished essay Russell”s Philosophy.
Some see Russell”s influence as negative, mainly those who have been critical of his emphasis on science and logic, the consequent weakening of metaphysics, and his insistence that ethics lies outside philosophy. Russell”s admirers and detractors are generally more aware of his pronouncements on political and social issues (called “journalism” by some, such as Ray Monk), than of his technical and philosophical work. Among non-philosophers, there is a marked tendency to conflate these issues, and to judge Russell the philosopher by what he would certainly consider to be his non-philosophical views. Russell often stressed this difference to people.
Russell left a large assortment of writings. From adolescence, he wrote about 3,000 words a day, with few corrections; his first draft was almost always very close to his last draft, even on the most complex technical subjects. His previous unpublished work is an immense collection of treasures, from which scholars continue to gain new insights into Russell”s thought.
In mathematics, his great contribution is the undoubtedly important Principia Mathematica with Alfred North Whitehead, a book in three volumes in which from certain basic notions of logic and set theory he pretended to deduce the whole of mathematics. Kurt Gödel demolished the pretended proof, thus showing the power of formal languages, the possibility of modeling mathematics and the fertility of logic. A profoundly influential and important book that contributed to the development of logic, set theory, artificial intelligence and computation, as well as to the formation of thinkers of the stature of David Hilbert, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Alan Turing, Willard Van Orman Quine and Kurt Gödel.
Social and political activism occupied much of Russell”s time during his long life, which makes his writings on a wide range of technical and non-technical subjects all the more remarkable.
Russell remained politically active to the end, writing and exhorting world leaders, as well as lending his name to numerous causes. Some claim that during his later years he gave his young followers too much license and that they used his name for certain absurd purposes of which a more thoughtful Russell would not have approved. There is evidence to show that he realized this when he fired his private secretary, Ralph Schoenman, then a young revolutionary of the radical left.
Pacifism, war and nuclear weapons
Russell was never a total pacifist; in his 1915 article “The ethics of war,” he advocated wars of colonization over land of useful use, when a more advanced civilization could manage the land by putting it to better use. However, he opposed almost all wars between modern nations. His activism against British involvement in World War I caused him to lose his membership in Trinity College (of Cambridge University). He was sentenced to prison for advising young men on how to avoid military service. He was released after six months. In 1943 Russell called his stance “relative political pacifism.” He argued that war was an enormous evil, but that in some extreme particular circumstances (such as when Adolf Hitler threatened to take over Europe) it could be the lesser of multiple evils. In the years leading up to World War II, he supported the policy of appeasement; but in 1940 he recognized that to preserve democracy, Hitler would have to be defeated. This same reluctant commitment was shared by Alan Alexander Milne, Russell”s acquaintance.
Russell opposed the use and possession of nuclear weapons, but he may not have always held that view. On November 20, 1948, during a public speech at Westminster College, he shocked some observers with remarks that seemed to suggest that a preemptive nuclear attack on the Soviet Union would be justified. Russell was apparently arguing that the threat of war between the United States and the Soviet Union would enable the United States to force the Soviets to accept the Baruch Plan for international control of atomic energy. Earlier that year he had written to Walter W. Marseille in the same vein. Russell felt that this plan “had had great merit and showed considerable generosity, when it is borne in mind that the United States still had an intact nuclear monopoly” (Has man a future?, 1961). However, Nicholas Griffin of McMaster University, in his book The Selected Letters of Bertrand Russell: The Public Years, 1914-1970 points out (after having obtained a transcript of the speech) that Russell”s terms imply that he did not advocate the use of the atomic bomb, but merely its diplomatic use as a powerful source of leverage over the actions of the Soviets. Griffin”s interpretation was debated by Nigel Lawson, former British Chancellor, who was present at the speech, and who points out that it was very clear to the audience that Russell was supporting a first strike. Whichever interpretation is correct, Russell then moderated, rather than arguing for nuclear disarmament by the nuclear powers, probably associated with some form of world government.
In 1955 Russell released the Russell-Einstein Manifesto, co-signed with Albert Einstein and nine other scientific and intellectual leaders, a document that led to the Pugwash Conference in 1957, in the face of the threat of nuclear war, and he spent the last fifteen years of his life campaigning against the development of nuclear weapons. In this he was following the advice he had given to an interviewer, telling him that the duty of the philosopher in those times was to avoid at all costs a new holocaust, the destruction of mankind.
In 1958 he became the first chairman of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CDN). He resigned two years later when the CRC did not support civil disobedience, and formed the Committee of 100. In 1961, now nearly ninety years old, he was jailed for a week for inciting civil disobedience, in connection with protests at the UK Ministry of Defense and in Hyde Park, London.
Very concerned about the potential danger to humanity from nuclear weapons and other scientific discoveries, he also joined Einstein, Oppenheimer, Rotblat and other eminent scientists of the time in establishing the World Academy of Art and Science in 1960.
In 1962, at the age of ninety, he mediated the Cuban missile crisis to prevent a military attack, writing letters to John F. Kennedy, Nikita Khrushchev, United Nations Secretary General U Thant and British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, who could have helped prevent the escalation of the conflict and a possible nuclear war, and brokering their mutual responses.
The Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation was started in 1963 to carry forward Russell”s work for peace, human rights and social justice. He began his public opposition to U.S. policy in Vietnam with a letter to the New York Times dated March 28, 1963. By the fall of 1966 he had completed the manuscript War Crimes in Vietnam. Then, using the U.S. justifications for the Nuremberg Trials, Russell, along with French intellectual Jean-Paul Sartre, organized what he called an “International War Crimes Tribunal,” known as the Russell Tribunal.
On the other hand, Russell was critical from the beginning of the official version of the assassination of U.S. President John F. Kennedy in 1963. His 16 Questions About the Assassination (1964) is still considered a good summary of the apparent inconsistencies of the case.
It should also be noted that Russell made a cameo playing himself in the Indian anti-war film Aman (it was Russell”s only appearance in a film.
Communism and socialism
Russell initially expressed much hope in the “communist experiment.” However, when he visited the Soviet Union and met with Lenin in 1920, he found the prevailing system unimpressive. On his return he wrote a critical treatise called The Practice and Theory of Bolshevism. He was “infinitely discontented in this atmosphere, stifled by its utilitarianism, its indifference to love and beauty, and the vigor of impulse.” For Russell, Lenin was a guy who pretended to be a scientist and who presumed to act according to the laws of history, but he saw in him no trace of science. Lenin”s followers were, for Russell, believers, fundamentalists and fanatics. He claimed to see something interesting in their fanaticism, but nothing to do with the laws of history, which for Russell were subordinate to science as the only method of analysis. He believed that Lenin was similar to a religious fanatic, cold and possessed by a “lack of love for freedom”.
Politically, Russell envisioned a benevolent type of socialism, affirming his sympathy for libertarian socialism or anarchism, similar in some ways to, although possessing important differences, the concept promoted by the Fabian Society. From this fusion of criteria arose in the 1920s his support for guild socialism, a form of individualistic socialism.
Russell was strongly critical of Stalin”s regime, and of the practices of states proclaiming Marxism and communism in general. He was always a consistent enthusiast for democracy and world government, and advocated the establishment of a democratic international government in some of the essays collected in In Praise of Idleness (1935), and also in Has Man a Future? (1961).
He who believes, as I do, that the free intellect is the main engine of human progress, cannot but fundamentally oppose Bolshevism as much as he opposes the Church of Rome. The hopes which inspire Communism are, in the main, as admirable as those inculcated by the Sermon on the Mount, but they are fanatically held and are just as likely to do as much harm as they are.
For my part, while I am a convinced Socialist as well as the most ardent Marxist, I do not regard Socialism as a gospel of proletarian vengeance, nor even, primarily, as a means of securing economic justice. I regard it primarily as an adjustment to the machine of production required by considerations of common sense, and calculated to increase the happiness, not only of the proletariat, but of all but a small minority of the human race.
Modern methods of production have given us the possibility of welfare and security for all; we have chosen, instead, to have overwork for some and starvation for the rest. So far we have continued to be as energetic as we were before there were machines; in this we have been stupid, but there is no reason why we should remain stupid forever.
He concluded that, today as in Locke”s time, empiricist liberalism (which is not incompatible with democratic socialism) is the only philosophy that can be adopted by the man who, on the one hand, demands some scientific evidence for his convictions and, on the other hand, desires human happiness above the prevalence of any party or creed.
As a young man, Russell was a member of the UK Liberal Party and was in favor of free trade and women”s suffrage. In his 1910 pamphlet, “Anti-suffragist anxieties,” Russell wrote that some men oppose suffrage because they “fear that their freedom to act in ways that are offensive to women will be curtailed.” In 1907 he ran for election to support this cause, but lost by a high margin.
Russell wrote against Victorian morality. In Marriage and Morals (1929), he argued that sexual relations between a man and a woman who are not married to each other is not necessarily immoral if they really love each other, and he advocated “experimental marriages” or “companionate marriages,” formalized relationships in which young people could legitimately have sex without expecting to stay married long-term or have children (an idea first proposed by the American judge and social reformer Ben Lindsey). These views of Russell”s sparked heated protests and strong denunciations against him during his visit to the United States shortly after the book”s publication.
Russell was also ahead of his time in supporting open sex education and wide access to contraception. He also supported easy divorce, but only if the marriage was childless: Russell”s view was that parents should remain married but tolerant of each other”s infidelities. This reflected his life at the time: his second wife Dora was publicly having a lover, and would soon become pregnant by him, but Russell wanted his children John and Kate to have a “normal” family life.
Russell was active in the Society for the Reform of Homosexual Law, being one of the signatories of Anthony Edward Dyson”s letter calling for a change in British law on homosexual practices.
Russell”s private life was even freer than his public writings revealed, although this was not widely known at the time. For example, the philosopher Sidney Hook reports that Russell often spoke of his sexual prowess and his numerous conquests.
Just as Russell”s ideas on religion evolved throughout his life, his views on the issue of race did not remain unchanged. By 1951, Russell advocated racial equality and interracial marriage. Of his authorship in “Racial antagonism” in New Hopes for a Changing World (1951), we read the following:
It is sometimes stipulated that racial mixing is undesirable. There is no evidence for such a view. There is, apparently, no reason to think that blacks are congenitally less intelligent than whites, but that will be difficult to judge until they have equal opportunities and good social conditions.
Passages in some of his early writings support birth control. On November 16, 1922, for example, he gave a lecture at the general Birth Control and International Relations meeting organized by the Doctor of Science Marie Stopes of the Society for Birth Control and Constructive Racial Progress, where he described the importance of extending Western birth control throughout the world; his remarks anticipated the population control movement of the 1960s and the role of the United Nations.
This policy may last for some time, but in the end we are going to have to give way – we are only postponing the moment; the only real remedy is birth control, which is to get the peoples of the worlds to limit themselves to the number of children they can support in their own land…. I do not see how we can have any permanent hope of being strong enough to keep the colored races on the outside; sooner or later they are bound to overflow, so the best we can do is to hope that the nations will see the wisdom of Birth Control…. We need a strong international authority.
Another passage from the earliest editions of his book Marriage and Morals (1929), which Russell later clarified as referring only to the situation resulting from environmental conditioning, which he had removed from later editions, reads as follows:
In extreme cases there can be little doubt of the superiority of one race over another…. There is no reasonable reason to consider blacks inferior to whites on average, although for jobs in the tropics they are indispensable, so their extermination (leaving aside the humanitarian issues) would be highly undesirable.
Russell later criticized eugenics programs for their vulnerability to corruption, and in 1932, he condemned the “unwarranted assumption” that “Negroes are genetically inferior to white men” (Education and the social order, chapter 3).
Responding in 1964 to a correspondent”s question, “Do you still regard blacks as an inferior race, as you did when you wrote Marriage and Morals?”, Russell replied:
I never argued that blacks were inherently inferior. The statement in Marriage and morals refers to environmental conditioning. I have removed it from subsequent editions because it is clearly ambiguous.
Admitting failure to help the world win the war and to win its perpetual intellectual battle for eternal truths, Russell wrote this in Reflections on my eightieth birthday, which was also the last entry in the final volume of his autobiography, published the year before his death.
I have lived in search of a vision, both personal and social. Personal: to care for what is noble, what is beautiful, what is kind; to allow moments of intuition to deliver wisdom in the most mundane of times. Social: to see in imagination the society that must be created, where individuals grow freely, and where hatred and greed and envy die because there is nothing to sustain them. These things, and the world, with all its horrors, have given me strength.
The following is a selection of Bertrand Russell”s works ordered by date of publication:
In 2008, the graphic novel Logicomix was published, in which Russell is the main character.