Bertrand Russell

Bertrand Arthur William Russell, 3rd Earl Russell, OM, FRS (18 May 1872 – 2 February 1970), was an influential British logician, philosopher, and mathematician, working mostly in the 20th century. A prolific writer, Bertrand Russell was also a populariser of philosophy and a commentator on a large variety of topics, ranging from very serious issues to the mundane.

Continuing a family tradition in political affairs, he was a prominent liberal as well as a socialist and anti-war activist for most of his long life. Millions looked up to Russell as a prophet of the creative and rational life; at the same time, his stances on many topics were extremely controversial. Born at the height of Britain’s economic and political ascendancy, he died of influenza nearly a century later when the British Empire had all but vanished; its power dissipated in two victorious, but debilitating world wars.

As one of the world’s best-known intellectuals, Russell’s voice carried enormous moral authority, even into his early 90s. Among his other political activities, Russell was a vigorous proponent of nuclear disarmament and an outspoken critic of the American war in Vietnam. In 1950, Russell was made a Nobel Laureate in Literature “in recognition of his varied and significant writings in which he champions humanitarian ideals and freedom of thought”. Bertrand Russell was born on 18 May 1872 at Trellech, Monmouthshire, Wales, into an aristocratic English family. His paternal grandfather, John Russell, 1st Earl Russell, had been the British Prime Minister in the 1840s and 1860s, and was the second son of John Russell, 6th Duke of Bedford.

The Russells had been prominent for several centuries in Britain, and were one of Britain’s leading Whig (Liberal) families. Russell’s mother Kate (née Stanley) was also from an aristocratic family, and was the sister of Rosalind Howard, Countess of Carlisle. Russell’s parents were quite radical for their times—Russell’s father, Viscount Amberley, was an atheist and consented to his wife’s affair with their children’s tutor, the biologist Douglas Spalding.

Both were early advocates of birth control at a time when this was considered scandalous. John Stuart Mill, the Utilitarian philosopher, was Russell’s godfather. Russell had two siblings: Frank (nearly seven years older than Bertrand), and Rachel (four years older). In June 1875 Russell’s mother died of diphtheria, followed shortly by Rachel, and in January 1876 his father died of bronchitis following a long period of depression. Frank and Bertrand were placed in the care of their staunchly Victorian grandparents, who lived at Pembroke Lodge in Richmond Park.

The first Earl Russell died in 1878, and his widow the Countess Russell (née Lady Frances Elliot) was the dominant family figure for the rest of Russell’s childhood and youth. The countess was from a Scottish Presbyterian family, and successfully petitioned a British court to set aside a provision in Amberley’s will requiring the children to be raised as agnostics. Despite her religious conservatism, she held progressive views in other areas (accepting Darwinism and supporting Irish Home Rule), and her influence on Bertrand Russell’s outlook on social justice and standing up for principle remained with him throughout his life. However, the atmosphere at Pembroke Lodge was one of frequent prayer, emotional repression and formality – Frank reacted to this with open rebellion, but the young Bertrand learned to hide his feelings.

Russell’s adolescence was very lonely, and he often contemplated suicide. He remarked in his autobiography that his keenest interests were in sex, religion and mathematics, and that only the wish to know more mathematics kept him from suicide. He was educated at home by a series of tutors, and he spent countless hours in his grandfather’s library. His brother Frank introduced him to Euclid, which transformed Russell’s life. Russell won a scholarship to read mathematics at Trinity College, Cambridge University, and commenced his studies there in 1890. He became acquainted with the younger G.E. Moore and came under the influence of Alfred North Whitehead, who recommended him to the Cambridge Apostles. He quickly distinguished himself in mathematics and philosophy, graduating with a B.A. in the former subject in 1893 and adding a fellowship in the latter in 1895.

Russell first met the American Quaker, Alys Pearsall Smith, when he was seventeen years old. He fell in love with the puritanical, high-minded Alys, who was connected to several educationists and religious activists, and, contrary to his grandmother’s wishes, he married her in December 1894. Their marriage began to fall apart in 1902 when Russell realised he no longer loved her; they divorced nineteen years later. During this period, Russell had passionate (and often simultaneous) affairs with, among others, Lady Ottoline Morrell and the actor Lady Constance Malleson. Alys pined for him for these years and continued to love Russell for the rest of her life. Russell began his published work in 1896 with German Social Democracy, a study in politics that was an early indication of a lifelong interest in political and social theory.

In 1896 he taught German social democracy at the London School of Economics, where he also lectured on the science of power in the autumn of 1937. Russell became a fellow of the Royal Society in 1908. The first of three volumes of Principia Mathematica (written with Whitehead) was published in 1910, which (along with the earlier The Principles of Mathematics) soon made Russell world famous in his field.

In 1911 he became acquainted with the Austrian engineering student Ludwig Wittgenstein, whose genius he soon recognised (and whom he viewed as a successor who would continue his work on mathematical logic). He spent hours dealing with Wittgenstein’s various phobias and his frequent bouts of despair. The latter was often a drain on Russell’s energy, but he continued to be fascinated by him and encouraged his academic development, including the publication of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus in 1922.

During the First World War, Russell engaged in pacifist activities, and in 1916 he was dismissed from Trinity College following his conviction under the Defence of the Realm Act. A later conviction resulted in six months’ imprisonment in Brixton prison (see Activism). In 1920, Russell travelled to Russia as part of an official delegation sent by the British government to investigate the effects of the Russian Revolution.

Russell’s lover Dora Black also visited Russia independently at the same time – she was enthusiastic about the revolution, but Russell’s experiences destroyed his previous tentative support for it. Russell subsequently lectured in Peking on philosophy for one year, accompanied by Dora. While in China, Russell became gravely ill with pneumonia, and incorrect reports of his death were published in the Japanese press. When the couple visited Japan on their return journey, Dora notified journalists that “Mr Bertrand Russell, having died according to the Japanese press, is unable to give interviews to Japanese journalists”. On the couple’s return to England in 1921, Dora was five months pregnant, and Russell arranged a hasty divorce from Alys, marrying Dora six days after the divorce was finalised.

Their children were John Conrad Russell, 4th Earl Russell and Katharine Jane Russell (now Lady Katharine Tait). Russell supported himself during this time by writing popular books explaining matters of physics, ethics and education to the layman. Together with Dora, he also founded the experimental Beacon Hill School in 1927. After he left the school in 1932, Dora continued it until 1943.

Upon the death of his elder brother Frank, in 1931, Russell became the 3rd Earl Russell. He once said that his title was primarily useful for securing hotel rooms. Russell’s marriage to Dora grew increasingly tenuous, and it reached a breaking point over her having two children with an American journalist, Griffin Barry. In 1936, he took as his third wife an Oxford undergraduate named Patricia (“Peter”) Spence, who had been his children’s governess since the summer of 1930. Russell and Peter had one son, Conrad Sebastian Robert Russell, later to become a prominent historian, and one of the leading figures in the Liberal Democrat party.

In the spring of 1939, Russell moved to Santa Barbara to lecture at the University of California, Los Angeles. He was appointed professor at the City College of New York in 1940, but after public outcries, the appointment was annulled by the courts: his radical opinions made him “morally unfit” to teach at the college. The protest was started by the mother of a student who would not have been eligible for his graduate-level course in abstract, mathematical logic. Many intellectuals, led by John Dewey, protested his treatment. Dewey and Horace M. Kallen edited a collection of articles on the CCNY affair in The Bertrand Russell Case. He soon joined the Barnes Foundation, lecturing to a varied audience on the history of philosophy – these lectures formed the basis of A History of Western Philosophy. His relationship with the eccentric Albert C. Barnes soon soured, and he returned to Britain in 1944 to rejoin the faculty of Trinity College.

During the 1940s and 1950s, Russell participated in many broadcasts over the BBC on various topical and philosophical subjects. By this time in his life, Russell was world famous outside of academic circles, frequently the subject or author of magazine and newspaper articles, and was called upon to offer up opinions on a wide variety of subjects, even mundane ones. A History of Western Philosophy (1945) became a best-seller, and provided Russell with a steady income for the remainder of his life. Along with his friend Albert Einstein, Russell had reached superstar status as an intellectual. In 1949, Russell was awarded the Order of Merit, and the following year he received the Nobel Prize in Literature.

In 1952, Russell was divorced by Peter, with whom he had been very unhappy. Conrad, Russell’s son by Peter, did not see his father between the time of the divorce and 1968 (at which time his decision to meet his father caused a permanent breach with his mother). Russell married his fourth wife, Edith Finch, soon after the divorce. They had known each other since 1925, and Edith had lectured in English at Bryn Mawr College near Philadelphia, sharing a house for twenty years with Russell’s old friend Lucy Donnelly. Edith remained with him until his death, and, by all accounts, their relationship was close and loving throughout their marriage.

Russell’s eldest son, John, suffered from serious mental illness, which was the source of ongoing disputes between Russell and John’s mother, Russell’s former wife, Dora. John’s wife Susan was also mentally ill, and eventually Russell and Edith became the legal guardians of their three daughters (two of whom were later diagnosed with schizophrenia). Russell spent the 1950s and 1960s engaged in various political causes, primarily related to nuclear disarmament and opposing the Vietnam War. He wrote a great many letters to world leaders during this period. He also became a hero to many of the youthful members of the New Left.

During the 1960s, in particular, Russell became increasingly vocal about his disapproval of the American government’s policies. In 1963 he became the inaugural recipient of the Jerusalem Prize, an award for writers concerned with the freedom of the individual in society. Bertrand Russell published his three-volume autobiography in the late 1960s. While he grew frail, he remained lucid until the end, when, in 1970, he died in his home, Plas Penrhyn, Penrhyndeudraeth, Merioneth, Wales. His ashes, as his will directed, were scattered.