Bertrand Russell Biography

Biography (History of the World: The 20th Century)

Article abstract: Russell’s original work in the areas of logic, mathematics, and the theory of knowledge was complemented by several important volumes of philosophical popularization, and in his later years Russell emerged as a major figure in the peace movement.

Early Life

Bertrand Arthur William Russell was born on May 18, 1872, in Trelleck, Monmouthshire, Wales. His mother, née Kate Stanley, was the daughter of the second Baron Stanley of Alderley and a leader in the fight for votes for women; his father, Lord Amberley, was the eldest son of the first Earl Russell and a freethinker who lost his seat in Parliament because of his advocacy of birth control. Both parents were considered extremely eccentric, and both died before Russell reached the age of four. Russell and his older brother were brought up by their rigidly conventional paternal grandmother, and they spent a rather solemn childhood being educated at home by a succession of governesses and tutors.

At the age of eighteen, Russell entered Trinity College, Cambridge, where it did not take him long to make a positive impression. He was taken under the wing of the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, with whom he would later collaborate on Principia Mathematica (1910-1913), and was much influenced by fellow student G. E. Moore (1873-1958), who helped him to develop his early ideas on the independent existence of what is perceived by the senses. In 1894, Russell married Alys Pearsall Smith, an American Quaker five years older than he was, and in 1895 he was elected a Fellow of Trinity College for his dissertation “An Essay on the Foundations of Geometry.” In the following year, he and his wife spent three months in the United States, thus beginning a lifelong interest in and involvement with American affairs.

In the late 1890’s, Russell achieved wide recognition as a professional philosopher of promise, as he subjected the dominant Idealist thought of the period to an increasingly rigorous critique. His personal life revolved around the strains of a deteriorating marriage, which in 1902 reached a crisis when Russell told his wife that he no longer loved her. Although they continued to live together until 1911, the pressures of conflict at home and a demanding professional career made this the most difficult period of Russell’s life. It was also, however, a very productive time for him, highlighted by the publication of perhaps his greatest single work: The Principles of Mathematics (1903), which took the groundbreaking step of removing metaphysical notions from the concept of numbers and arguing that logic alone could serve as the basis for a true science of mathematics. After the publication of this volume, even those who took issue with Russell’s views had to acknowledge his status as a major contributor to contemporary philosophical and mathematical thinking.

Russell’s striking personal appearance became part of the folklore of Cambridge. His tall, thin frame and sharply chiseled, almost hawkish facial lines were seldom observed at rest, as his penchant for vigorous intellectual disputation was matched by a passion for strenuous walking. Russell kept his distinctive looks to the end of his life, with the only significant change being a whitening of his full head of hair, which added a mature dignity to his craggy features. The heavy media coverage of his public appearances on behalf of the peace movement in the 1960’s reflected the charismatic appeal of his majestically leonine figure, which seemed to many observers to possess an almost biblical air of wisdom and authority.

Life’s Work

The decade preceding the outbreak of World War II found Russell achieving success as a professional philosopher and undertaking what would be the first in a tempestuous string of love affairs and marriages. His collaboration with Whitehead on the three volumes of Principia Mathematica developed the ideas touched upon in The Principles of Mathematics into a coherent and influential formal system, and he was fruitfully stimulated by his pupil Ludwig Wittgenstein, who helped him to clarify his thoughts about the proper conduct of philosophical analysis. Russell’s growing interest in the theory of knowledge resulted in his The Problems of Philosophy (1912), the first in what would be a series of books concerned with such perennial philosophical issues as the nature of reality and the operations of the mind. In 1911, he began an intense love affair with Lady Ottoline Morrell, which lasted until 1916 and put an end to his first marriage.

Russell was deeply affected by the horrors of World War I and found himself compelled to become active in the pacifist movement. His Principles of Social Reconstruction (1916) signaled a deepening involvement with questions of human relations,...

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Bertrand Russell Bibliography (Critical Guide to Censorship and Literature)

Blackwell, Kenneth, and Harry Ruja et al. A Bibliography of Bertrand Russell. 3 vols. London: Routledge, 1994. Lists more than sixty books and three thousand articles.

Clark, Ronald W. The Life of Bertrand Russell. London: Jonathan Cape, 1975. Clark enjoyed the full assistance of Countess Edith Finch Russell as well as full access to the Russell archive at McMaster University.

Dejnozka, Jan. Bertrand Russell on Modality and Logical Relevance. Avebury Series on Philosophy. Aldershot: Ashgate, 1999. This work presents a criticism and interpretation of modality and logical relevance in the work of Bertrand Russell. Includes index.

Grayling, A. C. Russell. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996. An excellent general introduction by a professional philosopher, emphasizing Russell’s work in mathematics and philosophy.

Irvine, A. D., ed. Bertrand Russell: Critical Assessments. London: Routledge, 1999. This book critically examines the life and work of Russell, including his philosophy.

Landini, Gregory. Russell’s Hidden Substitutional Theory. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. This work takes a closer look at one of Russell’s logical theories. Includes index.

Monk, Ray. Bertrand Russell. 2 vols. New York: The Free Press, 1996-2001. Monk’s two-volume life of Russell—volume 1 is subtitled The Spirit of Solitude, 1872-1921 and volume 2 is subtitled The Ghost of Madness, 1921-1970—enjoyed the best access to the Russell archive and the help of John Slater’s great personal collection and knowledge of Russell’s works. It is a very balanced account, much respected by Russell scholars.

Monk, Ray. Bertrand Russell: The Spirit of Solitude. London: J. Cape, 1996. This biography of Russell examines the philosopher’s life and works. Includes bibliographical references and index.

Monk, Ray. Bertrand Russell: The Ghost of Madness 1921-1970. London: Jonathon Cape, 2001. Volume 2 of Monk’s thorough biography, covering the troubled mature years of the philosopher.

Monk, Ray, and Anthony Palmer, eds. Bertrand Russell and the Origins of Analytical Philosophy. Bristol, England: Thoemmes Press, 1996. This collection of essays looks at Bertrand Russell and analytical philosophy. Includes bibliographical references.

Pampapathy Rao, A. Understanding Principia and Tractatus: Russell and Wittgenstein Revisited. San Francisco: International Scholars Publications, 1998. This work compares the philosophies and beliefs of Ludwig Wittgenstein and Russell.

Slater, John. Bertrand Russell. Bristol, England: Thoemmes Press, 1994. Scholars agree that Slater’s knowledge of Russell’s work “approaches omniscience.” Sympathetic to Russell’s work, it provides a comprehensive short account of it.

Bertrand Russell Biography (Critical Guide to Censorship and Literature)

0111200363-Russell.jpgBertrand Russell (©The Nobel Foundation) Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Although Russell contributed work of permanent value in the areas of logic, philosophy of mathematics, and philosophy of language, his widespread fame was also caused by his radical views on social, political, and religious matters. A classic “free- thinker,” he did not believe in God and held that religion did more harm than good. Not only, he thought, were certain religious doctrines (such as the Roman Catholic prohibition of birth control) pernicious, but they also encouraged fanaticism by accustoming people to accept views without regard to evidence. As he wrote in Why I Am Not a Christian (1957), the antidote for such evil was “a habit of basing convictions upon evidence, and of giving to them only that degree of certainty which the evidence warrants.” His application of this ideal to ethical and political matters led to his adopting radical views, such as his suggestion that college students satisfy their sexual urges by forming temporary, childless “marriages.”

Academic freedom, Russell thought, was necessary to prevent a “democratic tyranny” in which the majority abuses the minority. He believed that university professors must not be required to keep silent on controversial issues, because the community benefits from their intellectual training; academic freedom in America, he also thought, was chiefly threatened by the churches and by those who were powerful by virtue of their wealth. In Russell’s time, the...

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Bertrand Russell Biography (Survey of World Philosophers)

Article abstract: Russell’s original work in the areas of logic, mathematics, and the theory of knowledge was complemented by several important volumes of philosophical popularization, and in his later years, Russell emerged as a major figure in the peace movement.

Early Life

Bertrand Arthur William Russell was born on May 18, 1872, in Trelleck, Monmouthshire, Wales. His mother, née Kate Stanley, was the daughter of the second Baron Stanley of Alderley and a leader in the fight for votes for women; his father, Lord Amberley, was the eldest son of the first Earl Russell and a freethinker who lost his seat in Parliament because of his advocacy of birth control. Both parents were...

(The entire section is 1847 words.)

Bertrand Russell Biography (Critical Survey of Ethics and Literature)

Russell’s early work centered on mathematics and logic, culminating in the publication of Principia Mathematica, but twice he was dramatically drawn into issues of values and ethics. The first occasion came in 1901, when a “quasi-religious experience” brought home to him the isolation of the individual and led to his advocacy of humane policies in education, the punishment of criminals, and personal relationships. He published an essay, “A Free Man’s Worship” (1903), but was too involved in his work on logic to devote much time to these ideas. The second and lasting shift was prompted by World War I, which he opposed, though he would later support the opposition of Nazism in World War II. The horrors of the war...

(The entire section is 228 words.)

Bertrand Russell Biography (Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Bertrand Arthur William Russell was a preeminent mathematician, philosopher, and revolutionary moralist of the twentieth century. Born the second son of Kingston Russell, Viscount Amberly, and Katherine, daughter of the second Baron Stanley of Alderly, his grandfather was twice prime minister of England and the first Earl Russell. He lost both his mother and his father by the time he was three and was raised by his grandmother, Lady Russell, who was conservative in religion and progressive in politics. In his solitary childhood he read an enormous amount and with tutors began the study of mathematics. He studied mathematics and philosophy with distinction at Trinity College, Cambridge, afterward in 1895 becoming a fellow and later...

(The entire section is 873 words.)