Bertrand Arthur William Russell (1872-1970) was a wide-ranging British thinker, philosopher, mathematician and Nobel laureate best known for his work in the foundations of mathematics and analytic philosophy.His emphasis on logical analysis influenced the course of 20th century philosophy. He was also a political activist, a moral theorist, an educational innovator, and a gifted popularizer of concepts widely believed to be too deep for the general public (like the theory of relativity). A prolific writer, he was also a populariser of philosophy and a commentator on a large variety of topics, ranging from very serious issues to the mundane. Continuing a family tradition in political affairs, he was a prominent anti-war activist for most of his long life, championing free trade between nations and anti-imperialism.
Millions looked up to Russell as a prophet of the creative and rational life; at the same time, his stances on many topics were extremely controversial. Over the course of his long career, Russell made significant contributions, not just to logic and philosophy, but to a broad range of other subjects including education, history, political theory and religious studies. In addition, many of his writings on a wide variety of topics in both the sciences and the humanities have influenced generations of general readers. After a life marked by controversy (including dismissals from both Trinity College, Cambridge, and City College, New York), Russell was awarded the Order of Merit in 1949 and the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1950.
Also noted for his many spirited anti-war and anti-nuclear protests, Russell remained a prominent public figure until his death at the age of 97. He was an English Lord (an Earl), who inherited his title from his grandfather John Russell, a former prime minister.
Russell was born at the height of Britain's economic and political ascendancy. He died of influenza nearly a century later, at a time when the British Empire had all but vanished, its power dissipated by two debilitating world wars. As one of the world's best-known intellectuals, Russell's voice carried great moral authority, even into his mid 90s. Among his political activities, Russell was a vigorous proponent of nuclear disarmament and an outspoken critic of the American invasion of Vietnam. In 1950, Russell was made a Nobel Laureate in Literature, "in recognition of his varied and significant writings in which he champions humanitarian ideals and freedom of thought".
Bertrand Russell was born on 18 May 1872 at Trellech, Monmouthshire, in Wales, into an aristocratic English family. Bertrand Russell's father was John Russell, Viscount Amberley. His paternal grandfather, John Russell, 1st Earl Russell, had been the British Prime Minister in the 1840s and 1860s, and was the second son of John Russell, 6th Duke of Bedford. The Russells had been prominent for several centuries in Britain, and were one of Britain's leading Whig (Liberal) families. Russell's mother Kate (née Stanley) was also from an aristocratic family, and was the sister of Rosalind Howard, Countess of Carlisle. Russell's parents were quite radical for their times—Russell's father, Viscount Amberley, was an atheist and consented to his wife's affair with their children's tutor, the biologist Douglas Spalding. Both were early advocates of birth control at a time when this was considered scandalous. John Stuart Mill, the Utilitarian philosopher, was Russell's godfather.
Orphaned at the age of 3, Russell was raised by his grandparents (the former prime minister and his wife) who went to court to gain custody of Bertrand and his brother from the younger, more progressive guardians named their father's will. The elderly Russells provided a household that was politically liberal, religiously conservative, strict, and rather old-fashioned. Bertrand was educated by tutors and had little contact with other children of his age. Much of his career can be interpreted as a revolt against his upbringing. Though he held onto (and radicalized) many of his grandparents' liberal political views, he rejected their religion, and throughout his life was unable to think of religion as anything other than old-fashioned, traditional, judgmental, and superstitious. His attraction to abstract studies like philosophy and mathematics was a marked contrast to his grandfather's worldly practicality. His liberal educational theories were a rejection of the form his own education, and his ethical writings (especially his views about sex) were a rejection of the content. When he skewers Victorian nostalgia in Chapter 2 of Conquest of Happiness, he speaks from childhood experience that he is not the least bit nostalgic for.
Childhood and adolescence
Russell had two siblings: Frank (nearly seven years older than Bertrand), and Rachel (four years older). In June 1874 Russell's mother died of diphtheria, followed shortly by Rachel, and in January 1876 his father also died of bronchitis following a long period of depression. Frank and Bertrand were placed in the care of their staunchly Victorian grandparents, who lived at Pembroke Lodge in Richmond Park. The 1st Earl Russell died in 1878, and his widow the Countess Russell (née Lady Frances Elliot) was the dominant family figure for the rest of Russell's childhood and youth. The countess was from a Scottish Presbyterian family, and successfully petitioned a British court to set aside a provision in Amberley's will requiring the children to be raised as agnostics. Despite her religious conservatism, she held progressive views in other areas (accepting Darwinism and supporting Irish Home Rule), and her influence on Bertrand Russell's outlook on social justice and standing up for principle remained with him throughout his life. However, the atmosphere at Pembroke Lodge was one of frequent prayer, emotional repression and formality - Frank reacted to this with open rebellion, but the young Bertrand learned to hide his feelings.
Russell's adolescence was very lonely, and he often contemplated suicide. He remarked in his autobiography that his keenest interests were in sex, religion and mathematics, and that only the wish to know more mathematics kept him from suicide. He was educated at home by a series of tutors, and he spent countless hours in his grandfather's library. His brother Frank introduced him to Euclid, which transformed Russell's life.
University and First Marriage
Russell won a scholarship to read mathematics at Trinity College, Cambridge University, and commenced his studies there in 1890. He became acquainted with the younger G.E. Moore and came under the influence of Alfred North Whitehead, who recommended him to the Cambridge Apostles. He quickly distinguished himself in mathematics and philosophy, graduating with a B.A. in the former subject in 1893 and adding a fellowship in the latter in 1895.
Russell first met the American Quaker, Alys Pearsall Smith, when he was seventeen years old. He fell in love with the puritanical, high-minded Alys, who was connected to several educationists and religious activists, and, contrary to his grandmother's wishes, he married her in December 1894. Their marriage began to fall apart in 1902 when Russell realised he no longer loved her; they divorced nineteen years later. During this period, Russell had passionate (and often simultaneous) affairs with, among others, Lady Ottoline Morrell and the actress, Lady Constance Malleson. Alys pined for him for these years and continued to love Russell for the rest of her life.
Russell began his published work in 1896 with German Social Democracy, a study in politics that was an early indication of a lifelong interest in political and social theory. In 1896, he taught German social democracy at the London School of Economics, where he also lectured on the science of power in the autumn of 1937. He was also a member of the Coefficients dining club of social reformers set up in 1902 by the Fabian campaigners Sidney and Beatrice Webb.
Russell became a fellow of the Royal Society in 1908. The first of three volumes of Principia Mathematica (written with Whitehead) was published in 1910, which (along with the earlier The Principles of Mathematics) soon made Russell world famous in his field. In 1911, he became acquainted with the Austrian engineering student Ludwig Wittgenstein, whom he viewed as a genius and a successor who would continue his work on logic. He spent hours dealing with Wittgenstein's various phobias and his frequent bouts of despair. The latter was often a drain on Russell's energy, but he continued to be fascinated by him and encouraged his academic development, including the publication of Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus in 1922.
During the first World War, Russell engaged in pacifist activities, and, in 1916, he was dismissed from Trinity College following his conviction under the Defence of the Realm Act. A later conviction resulted in six months' imprisonment in Brixton prison.
In 1920, Russell travelled to Russia as part of an official delegation sent by the British government to investigate the effects of the Russian Revolution. During the course of his visit, he met Lenin and had an hour-long conversation with him. (In his autobiography, he mentions that he found Lenin rather disappointing, and that he sensed an "impish cruelty" in him.) He also cruised down the Volga on a steam-ship. Russell's lover Dora Black also visited Russia independently at the same time - she was enthusiastic about the revolution, but Russell's experiences destroyed his previous tentative support for it.
Russell subsequently lectured in Beijing on philosophy for one year, accompanied by Dora. While in China, Russell became gravely ill with pneumonia, and incorrect reports of his death were published in the Japanese press. When the couple visited Japan on their return journey, Dora notified journalists that "Mr Bertrand Russell, having died according to the Japanese press, is unable to give interviews to Japanese journalists".
On the couple's return to England in 1921, Dora was five months pregnant, and Russell arranged a hasty divorce from Alys, marrying Dora six days after the divorce was finalised. Their children were John Conrad Russell, 4th Earl Russell and Katharine Jane Russell (now Lady Katharine Tait). Russell supported himself during this time by writing popular books explaining matters of physics, ethics and education to the layman. Together with Dora, he also founded the experimental Beacon Hill School in 1927. After he left the school in 1932, Dora continued it until 1943.
Upon the death of his elder brother Frank, in 1931, Russell became the 3rd Earl Russell. He once said that his title was primarily useful for securing hotel rooms.
Russell's marriage to Dora grew increasingly tenuous, and it reached a breaking point over her having two children with an American journalist, Griffin Barry. In 1936, he took as his third wife an Oxford undergraduate named Patricia ("Peter") Spence, who had been his children's governess since the summer of 1930. Russell and Peter had one son, Conrad Sebastian Robert Russell, later to become a prominent historian, and one of the leading figures in the Liberal Democrat party.
After the Second World War, Russell taught at the University of Chicago, later moving on to Santa Barbara to lecture at the University of California, Los Angeles. He was appointed professor at the City College of New York in 1940, but after a public outcry by opponents of free speech, the appointment was annulled by a court judgement: his opinions (especially those relating to sexual morality, detailed in Marriage and Morals ten years earlier) made him "morally unfit" to teach at the college. The protest was started by the mother of a student who (as a woman) would not have been eligible for his graduate-level course in mathematical logic. Many intellectuals, led by John Dewey, protested his treatment. Dewey and Horace M. Kallen edited a collection of articles on the CCNY affair in The Bertrand Russell Case. He soon joined the Barnes Foundation, lecturing to a varied audience on the history of philosophy - these lectures formed the basis of A History of Western Philosophy. His relationship with the eccentric Albert C. Barnes soon soured, and he returned to Britain in 1944 to rejoin the faculty of Trinity College.
Russell then collaborated for eight years with the British philosopher and mathematician Alfred North Whitehead to produce the monumental work Principia Mathematica (3 volumes, 1910-1913). This work showed that mathematics can be stated in terms of the concepts of general logic, such as class and membership in a class. It became a masterpiece of rational thought. Russell and Whitehead proved that numbers can be defined as classes of a certain type, and in the process they developed logic concepts and a logic notation that established symbolic logic as an important specialization within the field of philosophy. In his next major work, The Problems of Philosophy (1912), Russell borrowed from the fields of sociology, psychology, physics, and mathematics to refute the tenets of idealism, the dominant philosophical school of the period, which held that all objects and experiences are the product of the intellect. Russell, a realist, believed that objects perceived by the senses have an inherent reality independent of the mind.
Russell returned to
in 1944 and was reinstated as a fellow of England . Although he abandoned pacifism to support the Allied cause in World War II (1939-1945), he became an ardent and active opponent of nuclear weapons. In 1949 he was awarded the Order of Merit by King George VI. Russell received the 1950 Nobel Prize for Literature and was cited as “the champion of humanity and freedom of thought.” He led a movement in the late 1950s advocating unilateral nuclear disarmament by Trinity College , and at the age of 89 he was imprisoned after an antinuclear demonstration. He died on Britain February 2, 1970.
During the 1940s and 1950s, Russell participated in many broadcasts over the BBC on various topical and philosophical subjects. By this time in his life, Russell was world famous outside of academic circles, frequently the subject or author of magazine and newspaper articles, and was called upon to offer up opinions on a wide variety of subjects, even mundane ones. En route to one of his lectures in Trondheim, Russell survived a plane crash in October 1948. A History of Western Philosophy (1945) became a best-seller, and provided Russell with a steady income for the remainder of his life. In 1949, Russell was awarded the Order of Merit, and the following year he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.
In 1952, Russell was divorced by Peter, with whom he had been very unhappy. Conrad, Russell's son by Peter, did not see his father between the time of the divorce and 1968 (at which time his decision to meet his father caused a permanent breach with his mother). Russell married his fourth wife, Edith Finch, soon after the divorce, in December 1952. They had known each other since 1926, and Edith had lectured English at Bryn Mawr College near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, sharing a house for twenty years with Russell's old friend Lucy Donnelly. Edith remained with him until his death, and, by all accounts, their relationship was close and loving throughout their marriage. Russell's eldest son, John, suffered from serious mental illness, which was the source of ongoing disputes between Russell and John's mother, Russell's former wife, Dora. John's wife Susan was also mentally ill, and eventually Russell and Edith became the legal guardians of their three daughters (two of whom were later diagnosed with schizophrenia).
Russell's politics were always controversial. He viewed World War I as a kind of mass insanity (and was personally annoyed that it interrupted his collaboration with Ludwig Wittgenstein). He was imprisoned for pacifism in 1918, a great scandal for a Lord. He espoused socialism for much of his life, and was one of many liberal intellectuals to give credibility to the
Soviet Union when he visited in the 1920s. After World War II he was a leader in the movements to encourage nuclear disarmament and to protest the Vietnam War.
Russell spent the 1950s and 1960s engaged in various political causes, primarily related to nuclear disarmament and opposing the U.S. invasion of Vietnam. He wrote a great many letters to world leaders during this period. He also became a hero to many of the youthful members of the New Left. During the 1960s, in particular, Russell became increasingly vocal about his disapproval of what he felt to be the American government's near-genocidal policies. In 1963 he became the inaugural recipient of the Jerusalem Prize, an award for writers concerned with the freedom of the individual in society.
Bertrand Russell published his three-volume autobiography in 1967, 1968 and in 1969, which was the final volume. Although he became frail, he remained lucid until the end. On 31 January 1970 he condemned "Israeli aggression in the Middle East", saying that "We are frequently told that we must sympathize with Israel because of the suffering of the Jews in Europe at the hands of the Nazis. ... What Israel is doing today cannot be condoned, and to invoke the horror of the past to justify those of the present is gross hypocrisy". This was read out at the International Conference of Parliamentarians in Cairo on 3 February 1970.
Bertrand Russell died at 6.30 pm on 2 February 1970 at his home, Plas Penrhyn, Penrhyndeudraeth, Merioneth, Wales of influenza. He had previously fought that illness off in late December 1969. His ashes, as his will directed, were scattered after his cremation three days later.
Philosopher and Author
In addition to his earlier work, Russell also made a major contribution to the development of logical positivism, a strong philosophical movement of the 1930s and 1940s. The major Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, at one time Russell's student at
, was strongly influenced by his original concept of logical atomism. In his search for the nature and limits of knowledge, Russell was a leader in the revival of the philosophy of empiricism in the larger field of epistemology. In Our Knowledge of the External World (1926) and Inquiry into Meaning and Truth (1962), he attempted to explain all factual knowledge as constructed out of immediate experiences. Among his other books are The ABC of Relativity (1925), Education and the Social Order (1932), A History of Western Philosophy (1945), The Impact of Science upon Society (1952), My Philosophical Development (1959), War Crimes in Vietnam (1967), and The Autobiography of Bertrand Russell (3 volumes, 1967-1969). Cambridge
He wrote many popular essays, some of which have been collected in books like Why I Am Not a Christian and Mysticism and Logic. He received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1950.