Bertrand Russell

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Bertrand Russell (May 18, 1872—February 2, 1970; Earl Russell, 1931-1970) was a British-born analytic philosopher, logician, essayist, political & peace activist, and Nobel Laureate (literature). His primary philosophical work was in mathematical philosophy, where he argued that mathematics could be reduced to logic (logicism). Because of this and his other work, he is one of the leading philosophers of the twentieth century. Russell was a life-long peace activist, imprisoned for his opposition to the First World War, openly opposed Hitler and the Soviet Union when it was not fashionable to do so, and criticized U.S. involvement in Vietnam. He campaigned for nuclear de-escalation and was the founding member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. Russell wrote voluminously, including a lengthy History of Western Philosophy, essays on his attitude to religion including Sceptical Essays and Why I Am Not A Christian (which was a talk he gave in 1927 at Battersea Town Hall).

Personal life

Russell was born on May 18 1872 at Ravenscroft near Trelleck in Monmouthshire ( now the Welsh county of Gwent, but at the time counted as in England rather than Wales for many legal purposes) as the second son of Lord and Lady Amberley. Two years later, Lady Amberley died and two years later again, Lord Amberley died. Russell grew up with his grandparents, Earl and Countess Russell at Pembroke Lodge, Richmond. He studied at Green's at Southgate and won a minor scholarship to Trinity College, Cambridge to study mathematics. While at University, he was a member of the Apostles and a frequent debater at the Magpie and Stump debating society.

Russell's doubts about the existence of God, and some discussion of what might later be called methodology, surfaced in his early teenage diaries from 1888 - the so-called "Greek Exercises":

I mean today to put down my grounds for belief in God. I may say to begin with that I do believe in God and that I should call myself a theist if I had to give my creed a name. Now in finding reasons for belief in God I shall only take account of scientific arguments. This is a vow I have made, which costs me much to keep and to reject all sentiment. To find then scientific grounds for a belief in God we must go back to the beginning of all things.[1]

Well, I hold that, taking free will first to consider, there is no clear dividing line between man and the protozoon. Therefore if we give free will to man, we must give it also to the protozoon. This is rather hard to do. Therefore unless we are willing to ti give free will to the protozoon, we must not give it to man. This however is possible, but it is difficult to imagine, if, as seems to me probable, protoplasm only came together in the ordinary course of nature, without any special providence from God, then we and all living things are simply kept going by chemical forces and nothing more wonderful than a tree (which no one pretends has free will) and even if we had a good enough knowledge of the forces acting on anyone at any time, the motives pro and con, the constitution of his brain at any time, then we could tell exactly what he will do. Again from the religious point of view, free will is a very arrogant thing for us to claim for of course it is an interruption of God's laws, for by his ordinary laws all our actions would be fixed as the stars. I think we must leave to God the primary establishment of laws which are never broken and determine everybody's doings. And not having free will we cannot have immortality.[2]


One of Russell's primary contributions in philosophy, mathematics and set theory is Russell's Paradox, which he discovered in 1901. The paradox is that the set of all sets which are not members of themselves is a member is itself a member of that set. The significance of this is that all logical sentences are based on a contradiction[3].

Another important contribution that Russell made to philosophy was that of his theory of definite descriptions, which attempt to provide a rigorous analysis of statements of the form 'the F is G' - such as 'the King of France is bald'. The question of importance is whether or not the sentence 'the King of France is bald' has any meaning, and since there is no King of France, it makes little sense to talk about him being bald. Before Russell, this problem was solved by positing 'nonexistent entities', entities that exist in place. Russell analysed the truth conditions of 'the King of France is bald' as the conjoint of the following propositions:

  1. There is at least one King of France.
  2. There is at most one King of France.
  3. All things that are Kings of France are bald.

If any one of these three is false, then the statement 'the King of France is bald' is false. If all three are true, then the statement is true.[4]

Social activism

In 1915 Russell published an article The Ethics of War, in which he set out criteria for when war was justifiable, concluding that the Great War was clearly not justified. He was fined for a leaflet produced for the No-Conscription Fellowship, and later imprisoned for a rash article suggesting that American troops would be used for strike-breaking.

In 1954, he broadcast on BBC radio a lecture entitled Man's Peril which condemned the Bikini H-bomb tests. In 1955, he collaborated with Albert Einstein in writing the Russell-Einstein Manifesto which called for the curtailment of nuclear weapons[5]. Russell's anti-nuclear activism led to the foundation of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.

Russell organised a tribunal - the Russell Tribunal, sometimes known as the International War Crimes Tribunal - which was hosted by the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. This investigated the actions of American forces in Vietnam. This was preceded by a book entitled War Crimes in Vietnam. The tribunal had as members a variety of scientists, philosophers and other intellectuals, as well as political representatives, artists and lawyers. The tribunal concluded that the United States government had committed genocide in Vietnam. Following this, the Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation organized the Citizens Commissions of Inquiry, which held similar hearings across the United States of America.

Views on religion

Russell's views on religion were atheistic, and anti-religious:

I regard it as a disease born of fear and as a source of untold misery to the human race. I cannot, however, deny that it has made some contributions to civilization. It helped in early days to fix the calendar, and it caused Egyptian priests to chronicle eclipses with such care that in time they became able to predict them.[6]

Russell famously gave a speech entitled Why I Am Not A Christian in 1927 at Battersea Town Hall. This was bound into a pamphlet by the Rationalist Press Association and has been distributed in a book of the same name. A translation into Afrikaans in 1955 by James J. Ravell was banned by the government of South Africa[7].

Russell responded to many of the arguments of religious apologists, and debated with the Jesuit priest Frederick Copleston on BBC radio in 1948. In 1952, Russell wrote an article for Illustrated Magazine which was not published, in which he drew an analogy of God to a teapot, arguing that the burden of proof should be on the religious believer to prove his claims, rather than the sceptic having to disprove claims which are either wildly improbable or not falsifiable:

If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is an intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense. If, however, the existence of such a teapot were affirmed in ancient books, taught as the sacred truth every Sunday, and instilled into the minds of children at school, hesitation to believe in its existence would become a mark of eccentricity and entitle the doubter to the attentions of the psychiatrist in an enlightened age or of the Inquisitor in an earlier time.[8]

City College controversy

In 1940, Bertrand Russell was nominated for appointment as a philosophy lecturer at City College in New York City. His appointment was blocked by a lobbying campaign led by religious groups.

Russell was teaching at the University of California when the administration of City College approved his appointment, followed by the Board of Higher Education who voted unanimously in favour of his appointment. He was to teach courses on logic, the philosophy of mathematics and philosophy of science.

Bishop Manning of the Protestant Episcopal Church was the first to protest, writing to newspapers across New York, noting Russell is a "recognised propagandist against both religion and morality, and who specifically defends adultery"[9]. This was followed by vilifying letters in The Tablet, the weekly Jesuit journal America, William Randolph Hearst's newspapers Journal and American and a number of other religious publications.

In response, academics, liberal religious groups, philosophers, scientists, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Committee for Cultural Freedom and former students came to Russell's defence, as did those in charge of scholarly societies like the American Mathematical Association, American Sociological Association, American Historical Association, American Philosophical Association and the American Association of University Professors. A group of academics wrote to the mayor of New York, Follette LaGuardia, urging him not to take the side of the protesters, arguing that not doing so would put in peril "the whole structure of intellectual freedom upon which American university life rests".

A lawsuit was also led by Mrs Jean Kay, a parent of a City College student, claiming that Russell's lax and atheistic views on sex and marriage put her daughter in danger (despite women not being allowed to take day courses in the liberal arts at the time). The lawyer representing her wrote in a brief that Russell's work was "lecherous, libidinous, lustful, venerous, erotomaniac, aphrodisiac, irreverent, narrow-minded, untruthful, and bereft of moral fiber", and that Russell was a sophist, a nudist, a homosexual sympathiser, a writer of obscene poetry and had run a nudist colony in England.

Russell's appointment was eventually rejected by the courts.


  1. Russell, Greek Exercises diary, March 19, 1888 - p. 5 of Volume 1, The Collected Papers of Bertrand Russell
  2. Russell, Greek Exercises diary, April 2, 1888 - p. 6-7 of Volume 1, The Collected Papers of Bertrand Russell
  3. A. D. Irvine, Russell's Paradox Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
  4. See Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Descriptions, for a more detailed description of the theory of definite descriptions, as well as summaries of objections by Keith Donnellan, Peter Strawson and Saul Kripke.
  5. The Russell-Einstein Manifesto
  6. Bertrand Russell, Has Religion Made Useful Contributions to Civilization? (1930); republished in Why I Am Not A Christian
  7. The Collected Papers of Bertrand Russell, volume 10, p. 177
  8. Bertrand Russell, Is There a God?, written in 1952 but unpublished, reprinted on the website for the Campaign for Philosophical Freedom.
  9. Appendix to Bertrand Russell's Why I Am Not A Christian (2004) London: Routledge