Last reviewed: June 2017
British writer, philosopher, mathematician, social critic, and Nobel laureate in literature.
May 18, 1872
February 2, 1970
Bertrand Arthur William Russell, born the second son of Kingston Russell, Viscount Amberly, and Katherine, daughter of the second Baron Stanley of Alderly, was a preeminent mathematician, philosopher, and revolutionary moralist of the twentieth century. His grandfather was twice prime minister of England and the first Earl Russell. He lost both his mother and his father by the time he was three and was raised by his grandmother, Lady Russell, who was conservative in religion and progressive in politics. In his solitary childhood Russell read an enormous amount and, with tutors, began the study of mathematics.
Russell went on to study mathematics and philosophy with distinction at Trinity College, Cambridge; afterward, he became a fellow and later a lecturer at Cambridge. He married Alys Pearsall Smith, the first of his four marriages, in 1894. In 1911 Russell began a relationship with Lady Ottoline Morrell. The passion cooled, but the friendship was lifelong. One of Russell’s many extramarital relationships, it illustrated his exhortation that people should exercise personal freedom dramatically greater than traditional and institutional moral limits permitted. In 1921, he married Dora Black, with whom he had a son, John, and a daughter, Katherine. In 1936, he married Patricia Spence and had a second son, Conrad. His last marriage in 1952 was to Edith Finch. Bertrand Russell
Although he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1950, little particular treatment of Russell from the point of view of a literary achievement exists, largely because his achievement and influence are in nonfictional discourse. Indeed, he published no fiction until after he won the Nobel Prize. Satan in the Suburbs (1953), Nightmares of Eminent Persons (1954), and The Collected Stories of Bertrand Russell, the latter published posthumously in 1972, represent a total of eighteen stories. The most interesting of them are “The Perplexities of John Forstice” and the title story of Satan in the Suburbs. For his tales Russell at first expressed a very modern motive: he wrote to amuse readers and for the pleasure that he received from writing them. Later, he expressed a classical and perhaps more personally candid motivation: to teach and inspire readers with stories that are clearly moral fables. While many Russell scholars regard his stories as an embarrassment, they have nevertheless been issued in numerous printings. Part of Russell’s real literary stature is represented in the inventory of writers he knew personally, read, and wrote about. They included Joseph Conrad, D. H. Lawrence, H. G. Wells, Aldous Huxley, T. S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf, George Bernard Shaw, and George Gordon, Lord Byron.
Ultimately, Russell’s contribution to literary culture was as a writer of many moral and political discourses that are elegant epitomes of literary nonfiction. These include Marriage and Morals (1929), his very progressive analysis of sexual practices and the institution of marriage. His very popular and profitable one-volume History of Western Philosophy (1945), written for the nonspecialist reader, renders its erudition and synthesizing brilliance with clarity and wit; it is a tour de force that was named in the Nobel Prize presentation speech, and it ranks among the writing of Thomas Carlyle, whom Russell regarded as a model, along with that of Edward Gibbon and Thomas Babington Macaulay. Finally, in The Autobiography of Bertrand Russell (1967–69), begun in 1921 and finished in 1969, Russell provides, especially in its first volume, a voice that rivals the great autobiographies by John Stuart Mill and Shaw. It has a comic spirit, intimacy, candor, and the clarity and bright intelligence of his popular and professional writing. In fact, the pervasive lucidity of his many books and articles was a major element of what gained him such an enormous audience through most of the twentieth century.
Aside from his role as an irresistibly influential social critic, Russell’s enduring achievement is as one of the most important philosopher-mathematicians of the modern era. His theoretical work to demonstrate that the theorems of mathematics are a subset of the theorems of logic (logicism) appeared in The Principles of Mathematics (1903). The magisterial elaboration of logicism appeared in Principia Mathematica (1910–13), cowritten with the now-revered Alfred North Whitehead. With this intellectual pedigree, Russell is recognized as a founder of analytical philosophy, establishing as his greatest work in the field of philosophy the long pursuit of a project to study whether it is possible to know anything—and thereafter the limits of what one might know. Among his major books reporting this endeavor are The Analysis of Mind (1921) and The Analysis of Matter (1927).
In 1949, Russell received the Order of Merit (awarded by the British crown and limited to twenty-four living members). Together with the Nobel Prize, his awards were a recognition of his immense progressive social influence. The range of his engagement of the issues of his time is inventoried by representative titles of his books and articles, among them “The Essence of Religion,” The Problems of Philosophy (1912), The ABC of Relativity (1925), Why I Am Not a Christian (1927), “The Future of Education and of Modern Marriage,” Power: A New Social Analysis (1938), “The Future of Civilization,” “Man’s Peril,” “How to Diminish the Risk of Nuclear War,” and Common Sense and Nuclear Warfare (1959). He was a fearless pacifist and antinuclear activist who was jailed both early (1916) and late (1961) in his life for antiwar demonstrations. His lifetime intellectual achievement and influence have a nearly mythic reverberation.