Bertrand Russell

Bertrand R oldBertrand Arthur William Russell (1872-1970), who became the third Earl Russell in 1931, was a mathematician, philosopher, and political activist. His Icarus; Or, The Future of Science (1924) was a response to J.B.S. Haldane’s Daedalus; Or, Science and the Future, arguing that “that science will be used to promote the power of dominant groups, rather than to make men happy”. The two books effectively launched the “To-day and To-morrow” series). He wrote elsewhere on what would become Future Studies, in his Sceptical Essays (1928) and his Unpopular Essays (1950), and in 1961, when he was still President of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmamant, he published Has Man a Future? He published three books of short stories or fables, some of which (“The Infra-Radioscope” and “Planetary Effulgence”) were science fiction and others fantasy:  Satan in the Suburbs and Other Stories (1953), Nightmares of Eminent Persons and Other Stories (1954) and Fact and Fiction (1961). All were republished in The Collected Stories of Bertrand Russell (1972). For more information, see the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.

Bertrand Russell was the grandson of Lord John Russell, First Earl Russell, one of the most distinguished statesmen of the mid-nineteenth century. His father died when Russell was 4; the second Earl Russell was Russell’s older brother, Frank Russell (1865-1931).

Eighteen months before his father died, Russell lost his mother and sister to diphtheria. When his father died, the children were left in the care of their grandparents; and when Russell was six his grandfather died too. He used to lie awake at night and wonder when his grandmother would die.

In fact Russell’s grandmother brought him up, and, rather than send him to Winchester College like his brother, she had private tutors educate him. Since she intended him to become Prime Minister, he was brought up on modern subjects like economics, politics and modern Languages, rather than Latin and Greek. His grandmother never spoke about his parents; he never told her about his growing religious doubts. When he got to Trinity College Cambridge at the age of 18, he found a likeminded and high-minded group of friends, most of whom belonged to the famous Apostles.

He started by studying mathematics, but was disappointed by its lack of theory; after his Part 1 examinations, he turned to philosophy. After graduation, he wrote a dissertation on “the epistemological bearings of metageometry”, which won him a five-year fellowship at Trinity.

At the end of 1894, aged 22, Russell married Alys Whitall, the daughter of a rich American Quaker. Russell’s grandmother opposed the marriage and at this point revealed some of the family secrets to Russell, including the insanity of his uncle and other family members. Thereafter, Russell said, he avoided emotion and concreted on the intellect.

In summer 1900 Russell delivered a paper at the International Congress of Philosophy in Paris, where he first presented some of the ideas that contributed to his endeavour to give mathematics a sound philosophical foundation, and vice versa. The three volumes of Principia Mathematica, by Russell and Whitehead, were published between 1911 and 1913.

His intention to abandon the life of emotion did not last long. He fell in love with Evelyn Whitehead, his colleague’s wife, around 1900, and realised that he no longer loved his wife Alys. For a while the two couples shared the same house. Later, after he and Alys had both moved to Oxford, Russell helped the local Liberal MP, Philip Morrell, in a re-election campaign, and fell in love with his wife, Lady Ottoline Morrell. At the time he had no academic position, and seriously thought of entering politics as his grandmother had intended all along. In 1907 he stood as a women’s suffrage candidate, and of course failed to win. But in the end he accepted a five-year lectureship at Trinity College Cambridge. He left his wife, and started an affair with Lady Ottoline Morrell.

In that same year, Ludwig Wittgenstein became his pupil; Wittgenstein’s work, Tractatus logico-philosophicus (1922) undermined Russell’s whole work. Indeed, by the summer of 1913 a combination of Wittgenstein and Ottoline Morrell had left him seriously lacking in self-confidence. In Spring 1914 he became a visiting lecturer at Harvard (T.S. Eliot was one of his students). He fell in love with a professor’s daughter, who, believing Russell’s promise to marry her, set sail for England on the day England declared war in August 1914. The First World War had not started well for Russell.

For the rest, see his War Experiences.

Russell was released from prison in September 1918 and moved into Garsington, Lady Ottoline Morrell’s country home, the refuge for many artists and writers whom she patronised. He worked on a series of lectures about the mind, and fell in love again, with Dora Black, an unconventional former Cambridge student. With Dora, he visited Wittgenstein in The Hague at the end of 1910, which set his mind clearer about the linguistic foundations of logic.

In spring 1920 Russell visited Russia as part of a trade delegation, hoping to find that the Bolsheviks had set up a socialist state that could be a model for the West. He was horrified by what he discovered, and immediately wrote an attack on the new regime in The Practice and Theory of Bolshevism (1921). He then spent a year at the University of Peking, with Dora. On his return to the UK in summer 1921, he divorced Alys and married Dora. They had a son and daughter (born 1921 and 1923). To keep the family together, Russell started writing hasty books for money, and going on lecture-tours in the US: he had no academic position (although Trinity College had offered). Philosophers who had admired him lost hope in him; the general public, however, found that here was a philosopher they might understand. His 1926 lecture “Why I am not a Christian” was reprinted many times.

He and Dora both stood as Labour candidates for Parliament; in 1927 they set up their own school, Beacon Hill, as an experiment in primary education. But their relationship came to an end, partly because Dora had two children with another man, whom she brought up with their own children. Russell left Dora in 1932, and was divorced from her in 1935. In 1936, Russell married Patricia Spence, who was generally known as Peter. Their son Conrad (1936-2004) eventually became the fourth Earl Russell (and a prominent historian).

Russell himself became the third Earl in 1931; he was urged to go into the House of Lords and speak on behalf of Labour, but instead he decided to go back to academia. He failed to get a post in Cambridge or Princeton, and a series of lectures he gave in Oxford in 1937 did not turn into a job. He spent a year at the University of Chicago in 1938-39; he gave the prestigious William James lectures at Harvard; but he was prevented from taking up a three-year offer at the College of the City of New York because his earlier published (very radical) views about sex and marriage were deemed an impediment. He taught at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, but was sacked by the notoriously difficult Dr Barnes. He was however able to turn his lectures into the History of Western Philosophy, which became a best-seller and his main source of income for some years.

His third marriage was collapsing just at the height of his financial difficulties, but he was yet again (for the fourth time in his career?) offered a five-year fellowship at Trinity College Cambridge, which started in the academic year 1944-45. He found that he was totally out of favour in philosophical circles. Luckily he seemed in favour in political circles, being very anti-communist in the post-war years. In 1949 he was given the Order of Merit; in 1950, the Nobel Prize for Literature.

In 1949 his wife Peter left him, and took Conrad with her. From 1950 to 1953 he shared a house in Richmond with his son John, his wife and three children, until they suddenly walked out of the house leaving Russell to cope with their three children. By then Russell had married for the fourth time, an American called Edith Finch. In 1954 his son John was diagnosed as schizophrenic, and John’s wife ended up in psychiatric care.

All these family problems coincided with Russell’s new mission, which was announced by his radio broadcast in 1954, where he argued that H-bomb tests showed that war itself had to be abolished. In 1955 the ‘Einstein–Russell manifesto’ was issued, and the Pugwash movement of scientists elected Russell as its president. In 1958 he became one of the founders of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, and wrote Common Sense and Nuclear Warfare (1959).

In 1960 he and Ralph Schoenman formed the Committee of 100, to organise campaigns of protest. At the age of 89, in September 1961, Russell was sentenced to two months in Brixton gaol, and he became a symbol for a whole world-wide movement. In the wake of the Cuban Missile Crisis, which Russell believed he had helped prevent through his letters to world leaders, he founded the Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation. On 2 February 1970, a frail 97-year-old, he died of bronchitis at his home in Penrhyndeudraeth, Merioneth.

I am largely dependent on Ray Monk’s entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography for the above account.



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