Bertrand Arthur William Russell - Biography
Bertrand Arthur William Russell was born on May 18, 1872 in Trelleck, Wales. He died February 2, 1970 in Penrhyndeudraeth, Wales. He was a British philosopher, mathematician, logician and historian. He is often considered as one of the founders of analytical philosophy.
Bertrand Arthur William Russell was born into a noble and influential family, and was, after the death of both his parents and sister, raised by his grandmother. Rather isolated during his youth, his main interests were religion and mathematics, in particular Euclidean geometry.
In 1890, Bertrand Arthur William Russell enrolled at the University of Cambridge, where he studied under Alfred North Whitehead. After his graduation three years later, he was granted a fellowship at the University because of the success of his thesis, An Essay on the Foundations of Geometry, in which a revised version of it was published in 1897. Russell’s first publication, however, was the critical, political study, German Social Democracy (1896), a subject that he also taught at the London School of Economics. Three years later, he was appointed lecturer at Cambridge.
Bertrand Arthur William Russell dedicated the following years to mathematical studies. Following the work of mathematicians such as Georg Cantor, Bertrand Arthur William Russell became highly interested in logic, which he considered the foundation not only of mathematics, but also of philosophy; he was convinced that the former could actually be deduced from very few basic logical axioms.
During this period, Bertrand Arthur William Russell was working on his first major publication, Principles of Mathematics (published in 1903), in the course of which he discovered his first paradox. It concerns a contradiction in the logic of sets, namely the fact that some sets are members of themselves. The paradox is such that these sets can be a member of themselves only if they are at the same time, not a member of themselves. Russell’s “solution,” the theory of types, anticipated modern axiomatic set theory.
In 1905, Bertrand Arthur William Russell published the essay On Denoting. In it, he for the first time applies his “theory of descriptions,” arguing that it is through an analysis of denoting phrases that thought can be represented. Convinced that ordinary language differs from “logical” forms of expression, Bertrand Arthur William Russell furthermore coins the term “descriptive phrases” to denote incomplete symbols that acquire their meaning only within a given context. Propositions, therefore, ought to be constituted by existing (concrete) entities.
Between 1810 and 1813, Russell, together with Alfred North Whitehead, published the three-volume oeuvre Principia Mathematica, a further attempt to demonstrate that mathematics is (to be) derived from logic. Immensely complex, the book had a tremendous impact on the philosophy of mathematics. Around this same time, Ludwig Wittgenstein had moved to Cambridge in order to study with Bertrand Arthur William Russell and, subsequently, became his doctoral student and protégé.
Russell’s The Problems of Philosophy (1912), on the other hand, represents the attempt to provide a general overview of the main problems of philosophy. Focusing on the theory of knowledge, which he divides into “knowledge by acquaintance” and “knowledge by description,” he famously puts forth the value of philosophy:
The value of philosophy is, in fact, to be sought largely in its very uncertainty[…]Philosophy, though unable to tell us with certainty what is the true answer to the doubts which it raises, is able to suggest many possibilities which enlarge our thoughts and free them from the tyranny of custom. Thus, while diminishing our feeling of certainty as to what things are, it greatly increases our knowledge as to what they may be; it removes the somewhat arrogant dogmatism of those who have never travelled into the region of liberating doubt, and it keeps alive our sense of wonder by showing familiar things in an unfamiliar aspect.
His Our Knowledge of the External World (1914) takes on a similar line of thought by claiming that the opposition of instinct and reason is illusory, as he states in his own words:
Instinct, intuition, or insight is what first leads to the beliefs which subsequent reason confirms or confutes; but the confirmation, where it is possible, consists, in the last analysis, of agreement with other beliefs no less instinctive. Reason is a harmonising, controlling force rather than a creative one. Even in the most purely logical realms, it is insight that first arrives at what is new.”
After a failed attempt to run for parliament, Bertrand Arthur William Russell was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1908. Being an advocate of woman suffrage, he published Anti-Suffragist Anxieties (1910), in which he makes the forceful claim that “Men fear that their liberty to act in ways that are injurious to women will be curtailed[…] The instinct of the master to retain his mastery cannot be met by mere political arguments. But it is an instinct which finds less and less scope in the modern world, and it is fast being driven from this stronghold as it has been driven from others.”
During the First World War Russell, shifting from liberalism to socialism, engaged in anti-war protests. As a result, he was fined and dismissed from his post at Cambridge in 1916. At this time he started working as a journalist and writer. In 1920, Bertrand Arthur William Russell visited the Soviet Union where he met Vladimir Lenin. From his experiences with Lenin and the Soviet Union in general he published, The Practice and Theory of Bolshevism (1920). In it he, rather disillusioned, makes the poignant note that “One who believes as I do, that free intellect is the chief engine of human progress, cannot but be fundamentally opposed to Bolshevism as much as to the Church of Rome. The hopes which inspire communism are, in the main, as admirable as those instilled by the Sermon on the Mount, but they are held as fanatically and are as likely to do as much harm.”
After a one-year lectureship in Beijing, Bertrand Arthur William Russell then married Dora Black in in 1921. Together they founded the experimental and progressive “Beacon Hill School.” Russell’s views on education are presented in his books Education, Especially in Early Childhood (1926) and Education and the Social Order (1932). Other publications of this period include the popular Why I Am Not a Christian (1927), Marriage and Morals (1929), The Conquest of Happiness (1930), and The Scientific Outlook (1931).
During the late 1930’s and early 1940’s Bertrand Arthur William Russell lived and worked in the United States. Having obtained posts at the University of Chicago and the University of California, he was also offered a teaching job at the City College of New York. Yet, due to his rather unorthodox moral standpoints and subsequent protests, the offer was soon withdrawn. Instead of New York, he went to teach in Philadelphia and published the lectures from this period as A History of Western Philosophy (1945/6), now a most renown history of philosophy.
Bertrand Arthur William Russell returned to Great Britain in 1944, and received the Order of Merit five years later. In 1950, he received the prestigious Nobel Prize for literature. Bertrand Arthur William Russell maintained his activist stance from being an avid anti-war demonstrator to becoming actively involved in the anti-nuclear movement. The most famous document of this time is the “Russell-Einstein Manifesto.” It was written in the early years of the Cold War, in 1955, and recognizes the “tragic situation which confronts humanity” and thus demands an agreement to abandon nuclear weapons:
We have to learn to think in a new way. We have to learn to ask ourselves, not what steps can be taken to give military victory to whatever group we prefer, for there are no longer such steps; the question we have to ask ourselves is: what steps can be taken to prevent a military contest of which the issue must be disastrous to all parties?
Following through the text, Bertrand Arthur William Russell co-organized the first Pugwash Conference on the issue and was elected president of the “Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.” He was also actively involved in the anti-Vietnam war protests as well. In 1963, Bertrand Arthur William Russell was awarded the first “Jerusalem Prize for the Freedom of the Individual in Society.”
Given his impact in various fields such as logic, mathematics, philosophy (to name only a few), Bertrand Arthur William Russell is undoubtedly one of the most important scholars and philosophers of the twentieth century. During his lifetime he published more than two thousand articles and many dozens of books. Some of the more notable texts are: Principles of Social Reconstruction (1916), Political Ideals (1917), Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy (1919), The Analysis of Mind (1921), The Problem of China (1922), The Analysis of Matter (1927), An Outline of Philosophy (1927), Religion and Science (1935), Power: A New Social Analysis (1938), An Inquiry into Meaning and Truth (1940), Human Knowledge: Its Scope and Limits (1948), Authority and the Individual (1949), New Hopes for a Changing World (1951), Human Society in Ethics and Politics (1954), Common Sense and Nuclear Warfare (1959), War Crimes in Vietnam (1967) and his biography, The Autobiography of Bertrand Bertrand Arthur William Russell (1967-1969, 3 Volumes).