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I suppose it is kind of preposterous that one imagines himself important enough to write down his opinions for others to read. Chattering superciliousness is one of the most infuriating things about academics and so-called intellectuals, generally, who feel compelled to share their thoughts. But here it goes, anyway.

Bertrand Russell: A Man in Full in Brief

Bertrand Russell: A Man in Full in Brief
By Michael E. Berumen
(An address before the Humanist Fellowship of San Diego, 5-17-09)

I should like to begin by making a bold assertion, one with which some might argue, but one I believe I can substantiate with a great deal of evidence. The assertion is this: not only is Bertrand Russell the most important English-speaking philosopher since David Hume, but he is the most important philosopher in the western tradition since Immanuel Kant. In other words, I submit that Russell is the greatest philosopher of the last 200 years. I measure this greatness in several ways: the content, scope, and originality of his ideas, along with the revolutionary impact and influence of his work, an influence that is nearly systemic, and sure to continue for the centuries to come. There is hardly an aspect of contemporary philosophy that has not been affected in a significant way by Russell.

Russell was more than a great philosopher, though; he also was a very remarkable man, a man of many parts. Kant was a great philosopher; some would even argue Wittgenstein was, too, although I am not among them. But no one could argue that either of them was particularly remarkable, memorable for the lives they led or for their impact on others, quite apart from their work in philosophy. Not only did Russell do some noteworthy things outside of philosophy, he led an extraordinarily interesting life. And it would not be an exaggeration to suggest that he is one of the finest writers, ever, of English prose, not to mention one of the most prolific, having written on the order of several thousand words each day for most of his long life, leaving us with a vivid record of his thought and personality.

On the eve of his birthday, it seems appropriate, therefore, to say a few things about Russell the man, his philosophy, and his influence. I will begin by speaking of his life, then I will encapsulate, as best I can, some of his work and ideas, realizing this is difficult to do, for the scope of his work is not only immense, he changed his position on central issues several times, and we are just now discovering some things about his unpublished work through the incredible treasure trove of Russellania at his archives at McMaster University. Finally, I will conclude by remarking on his sustaining influence on philosophy as a whole.

Russell also commented on many things outside of philosophy; indeed, I would say he is chiefly known by non-philosophers and even by some professional philosophers for his non-philosophical work, both for his popular writings and his political activism. I shall have some things to say about these things, too. Do keep in mind, however, that I am constrained to only an overview, and not the kind of full treatment required in order to appreciate someone as complex and prodigious as Bertrand Russell.

Let me begin by getting some of the negatives out of the way in summary form, negatives which have recently obscured his many achievements, and, I think, primarily as a result of a recent two-volume biography by Ray Monk. In many ways, Monk’s work is excellent for its detail and careful research, and it has the merit of having been written by a philosopher, while most of Russell’s biographers were not. A notable exception is A.J. Ayer, who wrote an excellent primer on Russell’s life and thought. While not a philosopher, I believe Caroline Moorhead presents a more balanced and impartial view in her biography of Russell, with equal attention given to his flaws and his virtues. While Monk’s biography is illuminating on many matters concerning Russell’s life, I think his disdain for Russell’s human frailties drips through his work, and as a consequence, he exaggerates their overall gravity, thereby, I think, diminishing Russell’s other, positive attributes. So let me put those negatives out front: Russell was a serial philanderer for much of his life and not always sensitive to the negative consequences his actions had on others; he could be detached, indeed, sometimes even cold, in his personal relations; he was not always an astute observer of practical politics, and he was sometimes naïve in his judgments about such matters; and he was nothing if not self-absorbed. That sums up, I think, his major flaws, flaws which form the subtext of much of Monk’s work.

But then Russell had virtues, too. He could be very generous with both his money and his time in order to come to the aid of others. He was always willing to credit others for their work, and he would even go to some lengths to bring attention to the discoveries of others. Russell was morally courageous and quite unafraid to defend unpopular opinions and suffer the consequences. He was considerably ahead of most of his contemporaries in terms of social issues, declaiming then unconventional ideas that we now take for granted. Russell was one of the world’s most eloquent and persistent advocates for the principles of individual liberty and justice. And aside from his strengths of character, his intellectual prowess has had few equals in history.

Born in 1872 in Wales at the height of Britain’s power, Bertrand Russell had deep roots in the English aristocracy. Several family members were historically significant, including his grandfather, John Russell, who was prime minister in the mid-19th century. Russell’s parents died when he was very young. Reared by his paternal grandmother and educated by a series of private tutors, he was a bookish and lonely boy, and he wrote that only his love of mathematics kept him from suicide. Once he reached Trinity College at Cambridge, he found others with similar interests, whereupon his life took on new meaning. His interest in philosophy soon blossomed. At Cambridge he came under the influence of another student, G.E. Moore, with whom he would co-found the analytic movement, inspired in part as an antidote to the philosophy of Hegel, who had achieved considerable prominence not only on the Continent, but also in both Britain and America. It was also at Cambridge that he met and was influenced by his mathematics professor, Alfred North Whitehead, with whom he would later write Principia Mathematica, a multi-volume monument to abstract reasoning.

Cloistered in the academic world and dedicated to scholarly pursuits at Trinity, Russell found time in 1894 to marry an American Quaker, Alys Smith. This would be the first of his four marriages. Early on, it seemed happy enough, but he became miserable in marriage for the better part of a decade prior to their finally agreeing to divorce. Alys never fell out of love with Russell, and she pined for him for the rest of her long life.

Russell wrote a book on German democracy in 1896, soon followed by another on geometry, one with a decidedly Kantian orientation, and one he would soon abandon. Russell’s political activism emerged in supporting the women’s suffrage movement, and he even stood for Parliament, though he lost. He and Alys were both supporters of the “free love” movement early in marriage, though they were not practitioners of what they espoused. Russell’s extramarital flings began later, most notably with the socialite, Lady Ottoline Morrell, and with the actress, Lady Constance Malleson. He sometimes carried on affairs with several women at a time, while married, and others report that it was not uncommon for him to brag about his prowess with women. He was flirtatious with more than one wife of the men with whom he associated.

Russell’s first important philosophical work, some would even argue his greatest one, was the Principles of Mathematics, which was published in 1903. This firmly established Russell as a philosopher and pure mathematician of the first rank. That was followed in 1905 by his famous essay, On Denoting, where he detailed the Theory of Descriptions, which was touted as a “paradigm of philosophy.” And then, of course, he and Whitehead co-authored the colossal Principia Mathematica in three volumes, published from 1910-1913, and which many believe to be the most important and influential axiomatic analysis and survey of symbolic logic ever written. Had Russell written nothing more than these three things, he would have still ranked among the most important philosophers of the age. But he wrote much, much more.

Early on, Russell discovered and wrote about the importance of language in philosophy, and specifically, the link between facts as denoted by propositions and reality. Prior to WWI, Russell became mentor to the other Titan of 20th Century philosophy, Ludwig Wittgenstein, who took Russell’s early interest in linguistic analysis to the next level, and whose work, later, would eclipse Russell’s in terms of popularity with many professional philosophers. Indeed, it is unlikely that we would have ever heard of Wittgenstein, the philosopher, had Russell not sensed his unusual genius and taken a personal interest in him, and had he not helped the unknown philosopher with the publication of Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus after the war. Russell wrote the introduction to the Tractatus, and this gave it instant credibility. As an aside, Wittgenstein often said of Russell and of others that they didn’t truly understand his philosophy; it apparently did not occur to him that this might have been a result of his own failure to make his ideas clear.

World War I seemed a tragic folly to Russell, and he joined the anti-war movement. He was thrown in jail in 1916 for his polemics against the war, and specifically because the government held that he had insulted Britain’s ally, the United States. Owing to his antiwar activities, he was also dismissed by his beloved Trinity, though he was eventually invited to return. While in jail for six months, he began and completed the Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy, which remains a fine primer on the subject.

Russell wrote over seventy books, hundreds of essays, and thousands of letters. Most of his important work on philosophy and logic was completed before 1930, though he continued to write occasionally on philosophy until the late Forties. From 1950 onwards, he devoted himself largely to political and social matters, with occasional replies to critics of his technical philosophy. He began to distance himself from the several schools of thought that germinated from his own work, especially the ideas of the later Wittgenstein, whom Russell thought had become too mystical and was sidetracked by the importance of language, as opposed to what obtained outside of our ascriptions.

Early in his life, Russell yearned for eternal truths. At this time, he had a decidedly religious bent, as evident in his Hegelian idealism followed by Platonism. His search for such truths and his disappointment in not finding greater meaning to life are most clearly demonstrated in his brilliantly written essay, A Free Man’s Worship, which he later thought to consist of too overblown and florid prose. Having as a young man rejected belief in god as unsupportable, Russell also became increasingly critical of the influence of religion, which he thought largely destructive. His most popular work in this regard is probably Why I am Not A Christian, written in 1927. By 1940, his unorthodox and liberal views, views well encapsulated in this book and in Marriage and Morals, quite radical for their time, led to his being barred from teaching an advanced course in mathematical logic at City College of New York.

When Russell’s elder brother, Frank, died in 1931, he became the 3rd Earl Russell…Lord Russell. He said his title was mostly good for getting hotel rooms.

Russell was essentially a democratic, guild socialist, as were many among the British intelligentsia. Along with H.G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw, and other prominent intellectuals, he was involved in Fabian Society activities. He was fiercely anti-communist, though, having early on thought Marx to be wrongheaded on several technical fronts, and, after his visit to the young USSR, one that included a personal interview with Vladimir Lenin, he became anti-Soviet.

His second wife, Dora, with whom he had two children, John and Kate, was very involved with him in political activities and in the formation of a school for early education. Russell had taken quite an interest in education, and he thought many of the world’s problems were attributable to mistaken pedagogy, and that if the young were only exposed to a proper education, many of these problems could be solved. He quickly learned, however, that theory and practice can be very different matters, and the school became a both a burden and a failure.

Russell’s son, John, lived a sad and difficult life, one beset with emotional problems, while Kate, who adored her father, seemed to find happiness and is today alive into her mid-eighties. Indeed, I might add, she is an esteemed and honorary member of the Bertrand Russell Society. Dora and Russell were divorced and he married Patricia Spence. She was his children’s former governess, and she bore him his third and last child, Conrad Russell, who later became a prominent historian and political figure.

It is evident from Russell’s autobiographical material and correspondence that he had bouts with melancholia (not in a clinical sense), and that they diminished in frequency and intensity only after reaching his fifties. Perhaps, then, it is not altogether surprising that he would write about happiness in his popular work, The Conquest of Happiness, given his own personal struggles for contentment. The subject was also in keeping with his general outlook on ethical matters, informed partly by the writings of his godfather, John Stuart Mill, a leading representative of the utilitarian school. There are several species of utilitarianism, but the most common holds that the main goal of ethics is to spread the greatest amount of happiness to the greatest number.

While he believed most wars are unnecessary, Russell was no pacifist. He strongly favored defeating the Axis powers in World War II. After the Allied victory, he briefly advocated war against the Soviet Union to preclude the dominance of communism, and as a prophylaxis against the further spread of nuclear weapons. He soon abandoned his hawkishness, and he became a principal in the nuclear disarmament movement and an advocate of world government.

Russell’s most popular work, A History of Western Philosophy, was published in 1945. It is an entertaining and well written book, and certainly worth reading, however, it is not the best history of its sort. In any event, for the first time, it enabled Russell to live a life that was financially secure. Shortly thereafter, in 1950, Russell was awarded the Noble Prize for Literature.

Russell and Patricia, or Peter, as she was called, divorced in 1952, and he married Edith Finch in the same year. This proved the happiest of his marriages, and it lasted until his death some eighteen years later. After an acrimonious divorce from Peter, he did not see his son, Conrad, until 1968, a reunion which apparently resulted in the estrangement of mother and son.

Russell became something of a secular saint to the “new left” in the 1960s. He was an ardent and outspoken critic of America’s military involvement in Vietnam, and he fell under the influence of Ralph Schoenman, an American activist who many believe took advantage of the elderly Russell by making pronouncements sometimes uncharacteristic of Russell. But though elderly and physically feeble by his nineties, those who knew him well said he never lost his faculties, and in the end, he denounced Schoenman and quit his association with him. Russell died of influenza in 1970.

Russell’s work in philosophy is broad in scope, sometimes very technical, with parts of it only now being fully understood and appreciated; and it is often difficult to categorize, since he frequently abandoned his positions for new ones. For our purposes, today, I shall generally classify his philosophy in five major phases, namely, Early Analysis and Realism, Logicism, Logical Atomism, Neutral Monism, and Scientific Realism. I shall ignore his Hegelian period, which he abandoned very early, but against which he rebelled and, along with Moore, started the analytical movement. Indeed, the whole of analysis as a philosophical genre, a style that permeates nearly all of the strands of philosophy in the west, today, is due largely to Russell’s influence. That is not to say that others weren’t involved, or, as in the case of Gottlob Frege, that some hadn’t developed similar ideas independently. But it is due to Russell, almost entirely, that the analytical style received widespread attention and soon came to dominate philosophy. I should also say that aspects of each phase of his evolving philosophy remained with him to the end, though he continually refined his outlook and abandoned things that he came to believe were false. Time permits us to discuss just one or two of his main ideas in each phase, and even then, not in technical detail.

In his Early Analysis and Realism phase, Russell came to believe that the world depicted by Hegel’s idealism and its then fashionable variants defied common sense. They contended that everything was mental and an idea in the mind of God or the Absolute; that to know one thing, fully, one had to know all it was related to, meaning essentially everything else, the so-called doctrine of internal relations; and all other kinds of unsupportable nonsense. Russell and Moore, in contrast, said no, there really are tables and chairs, what we see is real and it exists independently of our thoughts, and that when we stopped seeing it, it was still there, and that we need not know everything in order to know one thing. The proper method of philosophy was analysis, which is to say, breaking down our thoughts and language to the simplest level. As much as anything it is a way of doing philosophy, aside from what it may eventually assert. Clarity of expression and ideas, in particular, was important, as opposed to the obscurity that characterized much philosophy, and certainly that of Hegel and his followers.

In his Logicism phase, Russell sought to reduce mathematical truths to the truths of deductive logic, and the latter rested on a small number of premises and primitive ideas. The primary works of this period include Principles of Mathematics and Principia Mathematica, along with his famous article, On Denoting. In the Principles, Russell reduced the concept of number to classes; however, through a study of Cantor, he came across a serious antinomy having to do with the class of classes that are not members of themselves. The paradox arises when we ask whether this class is in itself, as by definition it should be, but it is only if it is not, which is clearly contradictory. When Frege learned of this contradiction from Russell, he said the edifice of his own work had been shattered, which caused him to abandon his own program of logicism. Russell solved the problem, along with other antinomies (such as the famous Liar’s Paradox), through his theory of types, a hierarchy of propositional functions, which we need not go into here. The Principia was a further effort to explicate and systematize logic and reduce it to its most fundamental propositions. Almost all of mathematical logic, today, has its roots in these two works.

Russell’s famous theory of descriptions is an outgrowth of the Principles and was the focus of his article in Mind in 1905. In brief, Russell found a way to dispose of the idea that certain kinds of names denote objects, and the notion that even absurd entities such as Pegasus or round-square copulas and the like have some sort of real status or being. Some even thought that when we denied the existence of such entities, we granted them a kind of existence. If we examine the statement The Present King of France is Bald, the law of the excluded middle (p v –p) should tell us that The Present King of France should appear on either a list of all the present non-bald kings or the present bald kings. But he’s nowhere to be found on either list. Russell dealt with such predicaments by structuring the proposition thusly,
1. There is an x such that x is the Present King of France (∃x (Fx));
2. for every x that is the Present King of France and every y that is the Present King of France, x equals y (i.e. there is at most one Present King of France) (∀x(Fx → ∀y(Fy → y=x)));
3. for every x that is the Present King of France, x is bald. (∀x (Fx → Bx)).

In so doing, by making x a variable seeking a predicate, as it were, we avoid asserting the existence of x, and we keep the entities populating our universe to a much more manageable level. Indeed, it suggests that any nominative expression that is not a proper name can be analyzed into simple predicates, thereby, enabling us to dispense with names altogether, a world of predicates, if you will.

This is in no small way related to Russell’s theory of Logical Atomism, in which he suggests that the world consists of simple constituents comprised of simple qualities and relations. Put another way, the world consists of facts, and these facts consist of objects or particulars that can be broken down into simple units. There are beliefs in relation to these facts, which are either true or false. Heavily influenced by Wittgenstein in this phase, Russell thought that one could achieve a kind of one-to-one correspondence between language and the facts of the world, and that through analysis we could get at the bare fundamentals, kind of the ultimate, simple facts, thus the appellation “atomism.” In Russell’s view at the time, the world we apprehend is essentially a logical construction. Later, he came to believe otherwise, but what remained was the methodology, whereby one arranges or defines more complex ideas or vocabularies (including those of logic and science) in terms of simpler ones. Indeed, this is perhaps the common thread amongst the several analytical schools even today.

We come now to Russell’s Neutral Monism phase. While short-lived, he continued to borrow heavily from it in his later thought. Russell was troubled by the problems of perception versus reality, and he sought to solve some of these difficulties. Previously he had been a dualist, believing the world consisted of mental and physical stuff, unlike the monists, such as idealists or materialists who thought the world one or the other. Neutral monism is not an original doctrine, for others, such as William James and Ernst Mach, held similar ideas before him, though Russell gave it his own twist through his scientific structuralism and a logical framework, and, it also might be said, he revived its popularity. Indeed, others are taking some of the views Russell formulated in this period very seriously even in the present day. Roughly speaking, with neutral monism, Russell held that the world consists of neither mind nor matter, but neutral sensibilia making up both minds and bodies. Thus, mind and body consists of common elements, but they are merely arranged in different ways, much like a phone book could be arranged either by name or by address, and yet consist of the same elements. Psychology and physics have their proper spheres, but in the final analysis, our sensations and desires are located in the brain; and whether we call them mental or physical, they consist of the same stuff and we need not bifurcate them ontologically.

I call Russell’s final phase, Scientific Realism. Here he says physical objects are inferred entities as opposed to the logical constructions that he once thought they were. Coming full circle to an almost Kantian outlook, we are unable to know their intrinsic natures, and, indeed, after years of considering the anomalous aspects of sensation and perception, he believed they probably have only a structural resemblance to our percepts, not the kind of direct correspondence that he and the earlier proponents of realism believed. He continued to maintain, however, that the difference between mental and physical states is not fundamental, but only a matter of how the stuff is arranged.

Previously, Russell had implicitly abandoned particulars, holding that only universals remained, an outgrowth of both his theory of descriptions and analysis. But even universals give way in his mature philosophy to qualities or events apprehended in a temporal-spatial framework he called “compresence.” In the end, though, Russell thought that science remains our best hope for understanding the world. He said, “It is at no moment quite right, but it is seldom quite wrong, and has, as a rule, a better chance of being right than the theories of the unscientific. It is, therefore, rational to accept it hypothetically.“

Let me make some brief remarks about Russell’s views on ethics. Essentially, he agreed with David Hume, which is to say that there are matters of fact as distinguished from matters of value. There are no moral facts. Ethical propositions are essentially expressions of our feelings and desires, Russell believed. But this in no way was to diminish their importance. Indeed, he was very passionate about a number of social and ethical issues. He had longed for something more satisfying than the positivist-emotivist view, and he rejected the idea that ethical propositions were, in effect, meaningless. But he nevertheless did believe that ethics lies outside the proper sphere of philosophy, and when he commented on social or ethical matters, he was careful to point this out. I think this worked against him, really, for he had some important things to say about ethics, and by suggesting he was acting outside of his capacity as a philosopher, he furthered a view of himself, one propounded by Wittgenstein and others, that he was too glib and should not be taken seriously on ethical matters. In truth, a great deal of what he has said about ethics has considerable value from a philosophical standpoint, as has been recently argued very persuasively in an article by Charles Pigden, my fellow BRS member.

And now I turn to an area that might be of particular interest to this audience, Russell’s views on god and religion. Russell abandoned his belief in a supreme being early in his career when he concluded that all of the arguments for his existence were fallacious. He said if he were addressing a group of philosophers, he would say he was technically an agnostic (I would say, more accurately: a non-believer) and that he could not prove the non-existence of god, though he found no evidence to support it, either, and quite a bit to suggest it was hokum. For all practical purposes, however, he said he was an atheist. Moreover, Russell held that religion was almost wholly destructive and without merit, and that it was based largely on fear and superstition, and contrary to the scientific attitude he promoted. He believed religion was inimical to progress, liberty, human dignity, and unworthy of free men. He frequently railed against the policies of the Roman Catholic Church on divorce, which he believed caused unnecessary pain and suffering, and on sexuality, which he thought anachronistic and unnatural. Interestingly, Russell often included communism among the major religions, believing it shared many of the same characteristics as a religious doctrine, and that it merely substituted dialectical materialism for god. It is fair to say that Russell eschewed dogmatic creeds and ideologies altogether, along with the authoritarian regimes they often inspire.

Bertrand Russell’s work has had a profound and lasting effect on philosophy, more than any other philosopher of the 20th century. While there have been changes and improvements to what he originally did in logic, no philosopher since Aristotle has had as great an influence over the subject matter, and most of what we do today in logic is an outgrowth of his work. This has had a wide range of effects, and not least of all in computer science. Russell was not the first to understand the importance of language to philosophy, but his early work is undoubtedly what gave the philosophy of language its major impetus early in the century, and its several strands today owe much to him, even though he himself came to question the importance of what philosophers of language were doing. Various other schools of philosophy, including logical positivism and the various strains of realism owe much to Russell, of course. It is barely conceivable that thinkers such as Ludwig Wittgenstein, Kurt Gödel, Rudolph Carnap, A.J. Ayer, Karl Popper, and Willard Quine, among many others, would have found the same prominence without Russell’s considerable influence. However, I suspect the thing that philosophy, generally, owes him is a rejection of obscurantism, a preference for clarity and rigor of expression, and its embrace of logic and science as its handmaidens. And all of us owe him a great deal for his clarion call for the supremacy of reason, and his eloquent and passionate defense of liberty, justice, and tolerance, even on occasions when these ideals were viewed unfavorably and under attack.

Finally, I would be remiss if I did not put in a plug for the Bertrand Russell Society, a group devoted to the study of Russell’s work and his ideals. The Society has regular annual meetings, publishes a quarterly journal, has an e-mail group for Russell discussions, and members receive a complimentary copy of the periodic journal, Russell: The Journal of Bertrand Russell Studies. The BRS also has a close, unofficial relationship with the Bertrand Russell Research Centre and Bertrand Russell Archives at McMaster University, headed by Nicholas Griffin and Kenneth Blackwell, respectively, members of BRS and two of the world’s foremost Russell scholars. Let me know if you have any interest in becoming a member of the BRS, and I would be happy to provide you with information.

All rights reserved copyright May 17, 2009.