Bertrand Russell

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 23)

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.

Bertrand Arthur William Russell was born on May 18, 1872, in Monmouthshire, England, in the most privileged circumstances. He was the third child and second son of Viscount Amberley and his wife, Kate. The Russells were an old family in a proud Whig tradition. Russell’s grandfather, Lord John Russell, was a younger son of the sixth Duke of Bedford, and Lord John’s highly principled political career included promotion of the Great Reform Act of 1832 and two terms as Queen Victoria’s prime minister. Bertrand Russell was well aware all his life of the role expected of a Russell in public affairs.

Russell’s family began to abandon him early in his childhood. When he was two years old, first his mother, and then a few days later his sister, died of diphtheria. Russell’s heartbroken father died eighteen months later when Russell was three. He was taken in by his grandparents, only to have Lord Russell die when he was six and leave him to wonder when his grandmother would die too. Russell’s extremely intelligent and rational mind set him off immediately from most people, and the combination of mental brilliance and his childhood losses burdened him with the “spirit of solitude” (the phrase is from Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem “Alastor”) and the need for love that Monk captures so well.

Assuagement from his loneliness came in 1889 when he met Alys Pearsall Smith, staying with her well-to-do Philadelphia family near the farm of Russell’s Uncle Rollo on the border between Surrey and Sussex. The following summer Russell entered Trinity College, Cambridge, and for the next few years he was preoccupied with mathematics and afflicted with sexual ache for Alys. He passed his Cambridge exams in 1893, and he married Alys in 1894 despite Lady Russell’s opposition and her warning of hereditary insanity, a specter that haunted Russell’s imagination all his life. After a flirtation with Baruch Spinoza’s pantheism and a spell of allegiance to Friedrich Hegel’s Absolute Idealism, by 1898 Russell had converted to the young analytical school of philosophy which he found compatible with an intense passion for Plato’s world of shining abstract Forms.

By 1899, Russell was writing The Principles of Mathematics, but his discovery in 1900 of the mathematical logic of Giuseppe Peano convinced him that all mathematics is built on logic and he completely rewrote his manuscript. In 1901, he discovered “Russell’s Paradox,” the puzzling case of the class of all classes that are not members of themselves (if this class is a member of itself, then it is not, and if it is not, then it is), an insight that he feared might be fatal to the notion of a “class” that was vital to his construction of a logical base for mathematics. Russell’s struggle with his paradox, not convincingly solved by his early “theory of types,” pursued him into his “long night,” Russell’s own term for the period from 1904 to 1910 during which he was laboring intensively with Alfred North Whitehead on their Principia Mathematica. One product of this period was Russell’s effort to resolve his paradox in his famous article “On Denoting” (1905), in which he argued that a concept is denoted by a description, not by a name. The paradox followed, he thought, from phrases that led to a contradiction and therefore could not refer to anything real. These phrases (synonymous in Russell’s mind with classes) have meaning in his “Theory of Descriptions” only when they are embedded in a proposition, and if a whole proposition and its converse are both false without creating a...

(The entire section is 2072 words.)