A retrospective: Bertrand Russell

Bertrand Arthur William Russell, 3rd Earl Russell, is one of my favourite, and perhaps even my overall favourite thinkers in the realm of philosophy. He literally Oozes with wisdom and is one of the most quotable writers there is, alongside another favourite of mine, a mr Mark Twain. Bertrand managed to live to a grand age of 97 before he left this world, and I will share some of his wisdom and life history with you.

Bertrand Russell was born in 1872, in Ravenscroft, Wales, and was born into an influential aristocratic family. His father, John Russell, Viscount Amberley, was a strong atheist politician and a writer. His liberal views made his political career a short one as he was an advocate for birth control and the right for women to vote. In 1874 his mother died, and two years later his father died, and he was now in the care of his Grandparents; his grandfather being former Prime Minister John Russell, 1st Earl Russell, but he died in 1878 and was left in the sole care of his Grandmother, Lady Frances Elliot. She heavily influenced Bertrand regarding social justice, moral principles and Darwinism.

Bertrand never went to school, he was home tutored and spent much of his early life in isolation, and this is where he discovered mathematics; more specifically geometry, where for the first time there was the possibility of observable, demonstrable knowledge, and this fascinated him. This was his path towards philosophy where he contemplated what was true and what was false, and this made him question, and abandon the Christianity his grandmother had instilled in him.

In 1890 he was free, and he attended Cambridge University where he studied mathematics, and became part of the influential philosophical group, Apostles.In1897 he published his first philosophy book,  An Essay on the Foundations of Geometry, just a year after, he published his first book on politics, German Social Democracy. He became inspired by the growing movement of German mathematical philosophers, who set ‘rigorous logical foundations‘ and he considered this to be the most important break through of the times.

This is when he decided to look at philosophy a different way, and he disregarded previous philosophy and claimed that philosophy only worked using analysis instead of synthesis, and this started the movement of Analytic philosophy, amongst English speaking philosophers of the time.

“Three passions, simple but overwhelmingly strong have governed my life: the longing for love, the search for knowledge, and unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind.” – Bertrand Russell

In 1903 he published the book, The principles of mathematics, where he argued that mathematics was the basis for logic, which Bertrand and German mathematician Gottlob Frege named Logicism, which attempted to prove that mathematics was immune from doubt, until he discovered what is now known as the Russell’s paradox:

Consider a group of barbers who shave only those men who do not shave themselves. Suppose there is a barber in this collection who does not shave himself; then by the definition of the collection, he must shave himself. But no barber in the collection can shave himself. (If so, he would be a man who does shave men who shave themselves.)” Source

It took me a moment of brain freeze to understand that, and this is an example of Bertrand’s genius. Bertrand contacted Frege about his concerns, and both considered that the foundations they’d built mathematics on had collapsed. Frege went into depression, and Russell persevered trying to come to a conclusion, but the paradox reappeared every time he thought he’d eliminated it. He came up with the Theory of types, which if you can fully understand then you’re a lot smarter than I.

Principia Mathetica, was a body of work that Russell, and Alfred Whitehead put together, and whilst regarded as one of the greatest intellectual achievements ever created, few can fully grasp the immense depth and complication of the study. They attempted to prove that mathematics is a branch of philosophical logic, yet some mathematicians aren’t convinced. He never really worked on logic again as he claimed he’d never recovered from the psychological trauma of writing the book, and instead he focused on epistemology; the theory of knowledge.

“A stupid man’s report of what a clever man says can never be accurate, because he unconsciously translates what he hears into something he can understand.” – Bertrand Russell,

He formed the conclusion that too few people were reading his work as to be frank, few had the intellectual capacity to understand it, so he decided that he had the ability to ‘dumb down‘ complicated subjects, and used this tactic to gain a larger number of readers, and this started in 1911 when he wrote, The Problems of Philosophy.

In 1914 World War I began, and he became an activist for peace, and his anti-war campaigning got him noticed as he was imprisoned for six months for being a trouble maker. He was extremely distressed with the events of the war and he decided that he needed to abandon liberalism and take an interest in socialism after observing the Russian revolution, but several years later he visited Russia to study Bolshevism and was disgusted at the Soviet Union’s methods, and this left him torn, so he visited China to lecture philosophy at Peking university.

“The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wiser people so full of doubts.” – Bertrand Russell

In 1945 he published, A History of Western Philosophy, which became as international best seller, and he became famous, but three years later on his way to Norway to give a lecture, his plane crashed and half of the passengers died. This had a profound impact on life, which he now valued more than ever. He became a public advocate for the disarming of Nuclear weapons, after the American atrocities against Japan, and the rumoured Soviet developments.

In 1950 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in Literature “in recognition of his varied and significant writings in which he champions humanitarian ideals and freedom of thought.” The 1950s and 60s were a busy time for Bertrand with him campaigning for Nuclear disarmament, and opposing the Vietnam war. The Russell–Einstein Manifesto was issued in 1955, literally days before Einstein’s death,

“The manifesto called for a conference where scientists would assess the dangers posed to the survival of humanity by weapons of mass destruction. Emphasis was placed on the meeting being politically neutral. It extended the question of nuclear weapons to all people and governments” – Source

In 1963 he publicly accused America of genocide due to their actions during the Vietnam war, and soon after he was awarded the Jerusalem Prize for the Freedom of the Individual in Society, which focused on human freedom. In 1967, 68, and 69 he published a three-part biography, and the following year he died of influenza at aged 97.

“Remember your humanity, and forget the rest.” – Bertrand Russell

Bertrand Russell’s legacy is an incredible achievement, he did so many other things that I’ve not mentioned. He will be remembered as a philosopher, logician, mathematician, historian, writer, essayist, social critic, political activist, and human rights activist, educational scientist, ethics and morality activist, Humanist and scientist.