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.
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.
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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