Authors: Bertrand Russell

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2017

British writer, philosopher, mathematician, social critic, and Nobel laureate in literature.

May 18, 1872

Trellech, Wales

February 2, 1970

Penrhyndeudraeth, Wales

Biography

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

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(Library of Congress)

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.

Author Works Nonfiction: German Social Democracy, 1896 An Essay on the Foundations of Geometry, 1897 A Critical Exposition of the Philosophy of Leibniz, 1900, 1937 The Principles of Mathematics, 1903 “On Denoting,” 1905 Philosophical Essays, 1910 (republished as Mysticism and Logic, and Other Essays, 1918) Principia Mathematica, 1910–13 (3 volumes; with Alfred North Whitehead) The Problems of Philosophy, 1912 Our Knowledge of the External World as a Field for Scientific Method in Philosophy, 1914 Justice in War Time, 1916 Principles of Social Reconstruction, 1916 (published in US as Why Men Fight: A Method of Abolishing the International Duel, 1917) Political Ideals, 1917 Roads to Freedom: Socialism, Anarchism, and Syndicalism, 1918 (published in US as Proposed Roads to Freedom: Socialism, Anarchism, and Syndicalism, 1919) Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy, 1919 The Practice and Theory of Bolshevism, 1920 (published in US as Bolshevism: Practice and Theory, 1920) The Analysis of Mind, 1921 Free Thought and Official Propaganda, 1922 The Problem of China, 1922 The ABC of Atoms, 1923 The Prospects of Industrial Civilization, 1923 (with Dora Russell) How to Be Free and Happy, 1924 Icarus; or, The Future of Science, 1924 The ABC of Relativity, 1925 What I Believe, 1925 On Education, Especially in Early Childhood, 1926 (published in US as Education and the Good Life, 1926) The Analysis of Matter, 1927 An Outline of Philosophy, 1927 (published in US as Philosophy, 1927) Selected Papers of Bertrand Russell, 1927 Why I Am Not a Christian, 1927, enlarged 1957 Sceptical Essays, 1928 Marriage and Morals, 1929 The Conquest of Happiness, 1930 Has Religion Made Useful Contributions to Civilization? An Examination and a Criticism, 1930 The Scientific Outlook, 1931 Education and the Social Order, 1932 (published in US as Education and the Modern World, 1932) Freedom and Organization, 1814–1914, 1934 (published in US as Freedom versus Organization, 1814–1914, 1934) In Praise of Idleness, and Other Essays, 1935 “The Limits of Empiricism,” 1935 Religion and Science, 1935 Which Way to Peace?, 1936 Power: A New Social Analysis, 1938 An Inquiry into Meaning and Truth, 1940 A History of Western Philosophy, and Its Connection with Political and Social Circumstances from the Earliest Times to the Present Day, 1945 Physics and Experience, 1946 Philosophy and Politics, 1947 Human Knowledge: Its Scope and Limits, 1948 Authority and the Individual, 1949 Unpopular Essays, 1950 New Hopes for a Changing World, 1951 Dictionary of Mind, Matter, and Morals, 1952 The Impact of Science on Society, 1952 Human Society in Ethics and Politics, 1954 Logic and Knowledge, 1956 Portraits from Memory, and Other Essays, 1956 Understanding History, and Other Essays, 1957 “How to Diminish the Risk of Nuclear War,” 1958 The Will to Doubt, 1958 Common Sense and Nuclear Warfare, 1959 My Philosophical Development, 1959 Wisdom of the West: A Historical Survey of Western Philosophy in Its Social and Political Setting, 1959 (Paul Foulkes, editor) Bertrand Russell Speaks His Mind, 1960 The Basic Writings of Bertrand Russell, 1961 (Robert E. Egner and Lester E. Dennon, editors) Fact and Fiction, 1961 Has Man a Future?, 1961 Essays in Skepticism, 1962 Unarmed Victory, 1963 On the Philosophy of Science, 1965 (Charles A. Fritz Jr., editor) War Crimes in Vietnam, 1967 The Autobiography of Bertrand Russell, 1967–69 (3 volumes) The Art of Philosophizing, and Other Essays, 1968 Atheism: Collected Essays, 1943–1949, 1972 The Life of Bertrand Russell in Pictures and His Own Words, 1972 (Christopher Farley and David Hodgson, compilers) My Own Philosophy, 1972 Russell's Logical Atomism, 1972 (David Pears, editor) Essays in Analysis, 1973 (Douglas Lackey, editor) Mortals and Others: Bertrand Russell's American Essays, 1931–1935, 1975–98 (2 volumes; Harry Ruja, editor) The Collected Papers of Bertrand Russell, 1983– (in progress, 36 volumes projected; Kenneth Blackwell et al., editors) The Selected Letters of Bertrand Russell, 1992–2001 (2 volumes; Nicholas Griffin, editor) Short Fiction: Satan in the Suburbs, and Other Stories, 1953 Nightmares of Eminent Persons, and Other Stories, 1954 The Collected Stories of Bertrand Russell, 1972 (Barry Feinberg, editor) Bibliography Blackwell, Kenneth, and Harry Ruja. A Bibliography of Bertrand Russell. With Bernd Frohmann et al., 3 vols., Routledge, 1994. Lists more than sixty books and three thousand articles. Clark, Ronald W. The Life of Bertrand Russell. Jonathan Cape, 1975. Written with the full assistance of Countess Edith Finch Russell as well as full access to the Russell archive at McMaster University. Dejnozka, Jan. Bertrand Russell on Modality and Logical Relevance. Ashgate, 1999. Presents a criticism and interpretation of modality and logical relevance in the work of Bertrand Russell. Includes index. Grayling, A. C. Russell. Oxford UP, 1996. An excellent general introduction by a professional philosopher, emphasizing Russell’s work in mathematics and philosophy. Irvine, A. D., editor. Bertrand Russell: Critical Assessments. Routledge, 1999. Critically examines the life and work of Russell, including his philosophy. Landini, Gregory. Russell’s Hidden Substitutional Theory. Oxford UP, 1998. Takes a closer look at one of Russell’s logical theories. Includes index. Monk, Ray. Bertrand Russell: The Ghost of Madness, 1921–1970. The Free Press, 2000. The second of a two-volume set (preceded by Bertrand Russell: The Spirit of Solitude, 1872–1921), covering the troubled mature years of the philosopher. Monk, Ray. Bertrand Russell: The Spirit of Solitude, 1872–1921. The Free Press, 1996. The first of a two-volume set (followed by Bertrand Russell: The Ghost of Madness, 1921–1970). Examines the philosopher’s life and works. Includes bibliographical references and index. Monk, Ray, and Anthony Palmer, editors. Bertrand Russell and the Origins of Analytical Philosophy. Thoemmes Press, 1996. A collection of essays looking at Bertrand Russell and analytical philosophy. Includes bibliographical references. Pampapathy Rao, A. Understanding Principia and Tractatus: Russell and Wittgenstein Revisited. International Scholars Publications, 1998. Compares the philosophies and beliefs of Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein. Slater, John G. Bertrand Russell. Thoemmes Press, 1994. Scholars agree that Slater’s knowledge of Russell’s work “approaches omniscience.” Sympathetic to Russell’s work, it provides a comprehensive short account of it.

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