Bertrand Arthur William Russell (3rd Earl) was born on 18 May 1872 in Monmouthshire, UK. He was the godson of John Stuart Mill and the grandson of Lord John Russell (1st Earl), who was prime minister to Queen Victoria in the 1840s and 1860s. So Russell came from an aristocratic family.
His primary schooling was mostly through private tutors. Whatever plans his parents, John Russell (Viscount Amberley) and Katharine Russell (Viscountess Amberley), had for his upbringing were foiled by their early death: Russell’s mother died in June 1874 (his sister died shortly thereafter), and his father died in January 1876. So at age four, Russell and his older brother, Frank (2nd Earl), moved in with their grandparents. Russell described his childhood as lonely, and he at times considered suicide.
His grandparents raised Russell as a Scottish Presbyterian. But Russell became an atheist by age eighteen after reading Mill’s Autobiography. He took a passionate interest in mathematics after Frank introduced him to Euclid at age 11, in 1883. In 1890, he won a scholarship to study mathematics at Trinity College, Cambridge. There he met Alfred North Whitehead, who would later co-author Principia Mathematica with him, and George Edward Moore, a long-time colleague and collaborator in rebelling against British Idealism.
At Cambridge, Russell also met his first wife, Alys Pearsall Smith. Their marriage would not end happily: they divorced in 1921, after some painful years and an years-long period of separation. This was a pattern that continued: Russell married Dora Black on 27 September 1921. They had two children – Katharine Jane Russell (now Lady Katharine Tait) and John Conrad Russell (4th Earl) – before they divorced in 1932. Russell then married Patricia “Peter” Spence on 18 January 1936. They had one child – Conrad Sebastian Robert Russell (5th Earl) – but he divorced Peter in 1952, and then married Edith Finch. This fourth marriage lasted until Russell died on 2 February 1970 at Penrhyndeudraeth in Wales, UK.
Russell graduated with a first-class B.A. in mathematics in 1893, and then completed the Moral Sciences Tripos in 1894. After various academic appointments at the University of Berlin, London School of Economics, John Hopkins, and Bryn Mawr, he was appointed lecturer at Trinity College. Thus began a long and storied academic career, interrupted usually by retribution by various authorities for his activism on behalf of various causes.
It is difficult to summarize the scope and depth of Russell’s work in a single, readable webpage. We dare not attempt to do it here. But we can acknowledge five broad themes:
- his work in logic and foundations and mathematics
- his work in traditional areas of philosophy
- his work on social and political questions
- his work agitating for various causes
- his work on individual questions and promoting a healthy outlook on life
We first discuss his work in logic and the foundations of mathematics. Russell deserves much of the credit for bringing the work of Gottlob Frege to the English-speaking philosophical world. After studying the work of Charles S. Peirce, Guiseppe Peano, Alessandro Padoa, Georg Cantor, and many others, Russell made a number of definite advances in the foundations of logic and mathematics. There is the famous paradox that bears his name, first advanced in published work in his 1903 The Principles of Mathematics, the theory of descriptions, first advanced in his 1905 “On Denoting”, and the publication in the 1910s of a Logicist foundation for mathematics, the logic of relations, in his co-authored three-volume Principia Mathematica. There is also his accessible Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy, and his 1920s second edition of Principia in which he explores the ideas of his former student, Ludwig Wittgenstein. This is to say nothing of the various ideas developed in articles on logic and mathematics.
Another theme is his work in more traditional philosophy, which no doubt was guided by his logical and mathematical work. There is his trio of books in the 1910s:
- his 1912 The Problems of Philosophy, which is still widely regarded as a classic introductory philosophy text,
- his 1914 Our Knowledge of the External World: As a field for Scientific Method in Philosophy, in which the external world is logically constructed, and
- The Philosophy of Logical Atomism, a series of eight lectures delivered in 1918, whose transcript was influential in English-speaking philosophy.
Besides this, there is also a book-length manuscript that went was only published after his death – the 1913 Theory of Knowledge manuscript, and his numerous works on matter and the theory of judgment in the 1910s. There are also in the 1920s another trio of books:
- his 1921 The Analysis of Mind, where he undertakes the logical analysis of mind
- his 1927 The Analysis of Matter, where he undertakes the logical analysis of matter
- his 1927 An Outline of Philosophy, where he undertakes to characterize philosophy
This is to say nothing of his accessible introductions to relativity theory and atomic theory, as well as numerous articles on a variety of subjects. And then there is another trio of books in the 1940s:
- his 1940 Inquiry into Meaning and Truth, which discusses a range of issues in the philosophy of language,
- his 1945 History of Western Philosophy, which aims to contextualize philosophers in their historical circumstances, and
- his 1948 Human Knowledge: Its Scope and Limits, which analyzes our scientific knowledge.
So much is only a small indicator of the extent of Russell’s work in what is typically taught as philosophy in universities worldwide.
There is, third, his work on social and political philosophy. Russell was intensely concerned with the organization of society, particularly after World War I, which Russell viewed as a mad loss of human life for very little purpose. But his interest in such questions goes back to his 1896 German Social Democracy, and it extends all the way to his 1954 Human Society in Ethics and Politics. In between there is his 1920 The Practice and Theory of Bolshevism, his 1922 The Problem of China, his 1916 Principles of Social Reconstruction, and his 1917 Political Ideals. His 1916 book deserves special mention, as it advocates many public policies that have taken on since in Europe and in Canada, and that are increasingly popular in the United States: such policies are a universal basic income, free post-secondary school, and measures to ensure equality between the sexes.
On the topic of equality between the sexes, his 1929 Marriage and Morals deserves special mention: in it, Russell advocated no-fault divorce, expanded sexual and professional freedom for women, and a host of other progressive social measures. Though almost all of them were later adopted – which perhaps speaks to their sensibility – Russell suffered professionally for it. In 1940, he was dismissed from his professorship at City College of New York, largely on account of his advocacy of policies that were seemingly too radical to tolerate the moral fabric of society. But Russell was no stranger to advocacy for causes that were socially distasteful: so long as the policy seemed, in his reasoned judgment, to improve the state of the great mass of humankind, Russell did not care for the personal consequences of his advocacy, or anything but reasoned arguments against a given proposal.
There is, fourth, Russell’s life-long advocacy on behalf of important causes. His advocacy lead him to fight against authorities at various junctures of his life. For his agitation against British involvement in World War I, he was fired from Trinity College and fined 100 pounds in 1917, and then he was convicted and imprisoned for five months in 1918. In 1961, at the age of 79, he was imprisoned again for protesting Britain’s hosting nuclear armaments from the United States. Indeed, after the United States dropped two atomic bombs on Japan in 1945 during World War II, Russell devoted a great deal of energy to the cause of world peace, and to the elimination of nuclear weapons. This agitation for world peace produced a number of initiatives:
- On 23 December 1954, he delivered his “Man’s Peril” address on the BBC.
- On 9 July 1955, he got Albert Einstein and numerous other luminary scientists to sign the Russell-Einstein Manifesto.
- In 1957, he was elected president of the first Pugwash Conference.
- In 1958, he founded the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.
- In 1960, he became the honorary president of the Committee of 100.
- In 1963, he established the Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation.
- In 1967, he launched the International War Crimes Tribunal in response to the Vietnam War.
There is also his advocacy, as a candidate for Parliament, for women’s suffrage in 1907. This roughly sixty years of fighting for the well-being of humankind is one vital theme in Russell’s work and life. It is part of the reason he won such awards as the inaugural Jerusalem Prize in 1963 and the Order of Merit in 1949, and the 1950 Nobel Prize in Literature.
Fifth, and finally, there is Russell work on the individual. This includes extensive writings on education of the young. Russell cared so much about education that in 1927, with his wife Dora Black, he co-founded the Beacon Hill School. His writings on education and the individual in the social order are numerous and varied. They include:
- his 1926 On Education, Especially in Early Childhood
- his 1938 Power: A New Social Analysis
- his 1949 Authority and the Individual
Besides this, Russell is perhaps best known for his delightful wit and his optimism about humanity’s potential to do good. This made him a favorite subject for interviews, and is most apparent in his writings like his 1930 The Conquest of Happiness, his 1959 My Philosophical Development and his three-volume 1960s Autobiography.
Such was Russell’s life: it was impactful, vibrant, and the life of an intellectual and activist. It was indeed a life inspired by love and guided by knowledge. This short summary has omitted much, but we hope that the reader is now in a position to agree with Russell’s assessment of his own life:
This has been my life. I have found it worth living, and would gladly live it again if the chance were offered me. (Russell, 1967, Autobiography, “Prologue”)