Bertrand Russell (Magill's Literary Annual 1997)
Ray Monk is a philosophy professor whose first book was a biography of Ludwig Wittgenstein, the Austrian-born philosopher whose brilliance unsettled even the haughty Bertrand Russell. This first volume of a planned two-volume life of Russell covers the first forty-nine of his ninety-eight years, from 1872 through 1921. Writing Russell’s life is a daunting task in that the Bibliography of Bertrand Russell contains more than three thousand entries, and the Russell Archives hold more than forty thousand letters as well as many journals, manuscripts, and other documents. In many of these materials, Russell is concerned mostly with himself, creating a record of “detailed self-absorption” that Monk judges matched only by that of Virginia Woolf.
In working with this rich trove, Monk, unlike previous biographers, provides a full account of Russell’s philosophical work and social thought. Monk organizes his story around the three powerful forces he locates at the root of Russell’s behavior: “his need for love, his yearning for certain knowledge, and his sometimes overpowering impulse to become involved in the great political issues of his day.” These three passions were often in conflict with one another, and in Monk’s analysis they issue from a terrible loneliness exacerbated by a haunting fear of madness. The events in Russell’s life that shaped this difficult emotional history began very early in Russell’s childhood.
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Bertrand Russell (Magill's Literary Annual 1991-2005)
In Bertrand Russell: The Ghost of Madness, 1921-1970, Ray Monk completes his account of the philosopher’s life begun in his acclaimed Bertrand Russell: The Spirit of Solitude, 1872-1921 (1996). Monk provides an important corrective to the usual image of Russell as a benign eminence grise, an espouser of quaint but ultimately harmless social views, and a culmination of the philosophical tradition that had produced such figures as Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947) and Kurt Gödel (1906-1978). Monk’s image of Russell is both more controversial and more complex than this traditional view. The Ghost of Madness depicts the philosopher as struggling to find a new focus once his most important intellectual work is behind him. Monk’s Russell seeks in vain to locate a new philosophical anchor since he cannot refute challenges made by other scholars to his most fundamental principles. More ominously, Monk’s Russell is a conflicted figure whose stunted emotions and commitment to rationality at all cost prove disastrous to members of his own family when he attempts to put several ill-conceived ideas into practice.
The Ghost of Madness opens with its subject having both World War I and the sources of his international acclaim—his highly influential works Principles of Mathematics (1903) and Principia Mathematica (coauthored with Alfred North Whitehead, 1910-1913)—already behind him. In these...
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