The Life of Bertrand Russell

As a philosopher and social critic, Bertrand Russell did not display much fondness for uncovering irony and paradox. Russell’s intellect persistently drove through nicely balanced dialectical relations to the atomical foundations of any matter, whether or not such foundations existed. Yet when confronting the history of Russell’s life—which, to understate things considerably, is more than the life of a mind—one simply cannot resist using the perhaps too fashionable categories of paradox and irony. Russell was a notorious pacifist and determined opponent of nuclear weapons; he nevertheless once advocated that the United States launch a preventatiev nuclear war against the Soviet Union. (That Russell constantly accused the United States of imperialism doubles the paradox.) Russell was a champion of the rights of blacks; he nevertheless could write, “It seems on the whole fair to regard negroes as on the average inferior to white men.” Russell, following the example of his godfather John Stuart Mill, publically abhorred the subjection of women; in private, however, he seemed incapable of encountering women as co-equal persons with special needs and destinies of their own. Although a fervent internationalist, Russell’s British chauvinism constantly burned through; and always more or less anti-American, he took two American wives and relied heavily on American universities, foundations, and publishers.

The intensity and quantity of such paradoxes has generated a considerable recent literature on Russell’s life, personality, and thought. To supplement Allan Wood’s early (1958) biography, we now have Dora Black Russell’s autobiography The Tamarisk Tree (1976), Katharine Russell Tait’s My Father Bertrand Russell (1976), and the lengthy work by Ronald Clark. Additionally, the British logical positivist A. J. Ayer has lately produced a study of Russell’s philosophy, one which should be read together with D. F. Pears’ Bertrand Russell and the British Empiricist Tradition (1967). All of these books attempt to untangle the Russell puzzle, indicating that Russell’s social thought, personal and professional development, and political views should certainly begin with the Clark biography. For, while Clark attempts to do justice to Russell’s contribution to the philosophy of logic, mathematics, and mind, he does not supply enough contexts or explications to make the technical side of the philosophic debates truly intelligible. What Clark does do very well, however, is communicate the intense excitement which technical philosophical investigations can generate. The “adventure of ideas” (to use Whitehead’s phrase) is vividly captured by Clark, a journalist and biographer who has spent much of his career describing explorations, escapes, intrigues, and sleuthings. Because of Clark’s skill in depicting both the barrenness and exhilaration of philosophic and scientific quests, his book also comments on the trained philosopher. At the same time, Russell’s purely philosophic achievements are better measured by the likes of Pears and Ayer.

As Warren Wagar has pointed out, Clark approaches his task in a decidedly old-fashioned way: solid narrative rather than excessive interpretation is his goal. The result is a year-by-year reconstruction of Russell’s life, with few reflective authorial pauses. Yet to narrate is to select, and selection is interpretation. While no internally consistent set of principles seems to govern Clark’s choice of what to emphasize and suppress, one quickly realizes that the author’s research led him to certain conclusions about Russell’s fundamental motivations. That much in Russell’s behavior can be attributed to his almost grotesque childhood environment is clear to Clark—as indeed it was to Russell himself. But of near-equal importance was the complex...

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