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Russell, Bertrand


Third Earl, English philosopher, progressive thinker, and pioneer of symbolic logic; born in Trelleck on May 18, 1872; died Feb. 2, 1970, in Wales. Born into a great Whig family, champions of reform, he was brought up a Protestant. As a boy he tried in vain to find an acceptable rational basis for religion and became an agnostic. Educated privately and at Cambridge, he studied mathematics and philosophy. His life was principally that of a writer on philosophical, logical, and social questions, though he held teaching posts in England, the U.S., and China. Fellow of Trinity College at various periods, he was once put out for his pacifism. He stood for Parliament twice, once as a women's suffrage candidate, and was twice imprisoned, once in connection with pacifism and once with nuclear disarmament. At one time he conducted a school on educational principles of his own. He did not see this as a success and gave up the school in 1932. He received the Order of Merit and in 1950 the Nobel Prize for Literature. From the 1950s onward he increasingly turned from philosophy to international politics. He protested both the H-Bomb test on the Bikini Atoll, and the U. S. involvement in the Vietnam War, inciting people to mass civil disobedience. His views and his uncompromising implementation of them brought on him obloquy and even ostracism. As a brilliant writer and speaker with a mischievous wit, he knew and influenced many leading intellectual figures.

Logic and Mathematics. Partly under the influence of G. E. Moore, he soon abandoned his early idealism, being chiefly hostile to the doctrine that all relations are internal; since the he always believed in a plurality of objects standing in relations that leave their nature unaltered. After 1900 the writings of G. Peano inspired him to demonstrate that mathematics was not a set of synthetic a priori truths but was reducible to logic. Soon, however, he found a contradiction in the notion of a class, on which he had relied: for the class of all classes that are not members of themselves is a member of itself, if it is not, and is not, if it is (see antinomy). G. Frege felt shattered, but Russell eventually produced a solution, which he never quite relinquished, in his theory of types. The type, or range of significance, of a propositional function, f (x ), is given by the range of constants that yield a meaningful proposition when substituted for x: it is not meaningful either to assert or to deny that the contradictious class mentioned above is a member of itself. (G. Ryle has since attributed many philosophical problems to informal type mistakes.) Russell and A. N. Whitehead set out their logicist account of mathematics in Principia Mathematica (3 v. Cambridge, Eng. 191013, 2d ed. 192527). Among philosophical objections to it are the unnaturalness of the theory of types and the non-self-evidence of certain axioms.

In his realist phase Russell thought that cardinal numbers, classes, and even objects of reference such as the golden mountain were real, but his theory of descriptions (1905) showed how propositions apparently involving reference to possibly nonexistent objects could be so rephrased that their meaningfulness did not involve the existence of those objects. "The King of France is bald" is meaningful even when there is no King of France, since it asserts merely that one and only one thing is the King of France and that that thing is bald. Such analyses facilitated Russell's increasingly frequent applications of Ockham's razor. Instances were now seen to be classes of events. Numbers, points, and physical objects were treated analogously.

Russell's program was to substitute logical constructions for inferred entities and to minimize the number of objects in which one had to believe. His logical atomism of 1914 to 1920 (which owed much to L. wittgenstein) consisted in using logical techniques to break down complex facts into their ultimate components. Every proposition ought to be explicable as equivalent to a truth function of basic propositions, in which each element stands for an object or universal with which one is acquainted. The most resistant propositions, those about mental facts, were given a behaviorist analysis (1921): consciousness succumbed to Ockham's razor, and (as in the neutral monism of W. james) the propositions of science, when analyzed, were seen to refer only to elements that are in themselves neither mental nor physical.

Russell's concern was always with science, not with common sense or common usage (whose propositions might be incurably confused). He came to identify sense data with brain states and physical objects with the unknown but inferred causes of those states (1927). He departed from strict empiricism and sought the postulates required for the nondeductive inferences of science (1948).

Logical positivism and linguistic analysis alike have revealed difficulties in the analyses required by Russell. His fundamental assumption of the existence of particulars named by logically proper names has been criticized, notably by Wittgenstein, for embodying a primitive and partial conception of language.

Ethics and Religion. Russell's views on ethics, society, and politics, though influential and stimulating, are of little theoretical importance. He combined the conviction that assertions of value are groundless with a passionate attachment to certain values. He always repudiated humanism in its sense of awe before the human spirit: his nearest approach to religion is a sense of the infinite and a certain cosmic feeling. He rejected theology because he could see no validity in the traditional proofs. For him, a First Cause must itself have a cause, and necessity is an attribute of propositions; so there can be no "Necessary Being." Institutional religion is, perhaps inevitably, a source of evil.

Bibliography: Principal Works. Principles of Mathematics (Cambridge, Eng. 1903; 2d ed. New York 1938); The Problems of Philosophy (New York 1912); Our Knowledge of the External World (Chicago 1914); Mysticism and Logic (New York 1918); Analysis of Mind (New York 1921); Analysis of Matter (New York 1927); Why I Am Not a Christian (London 1927; ed. p. edwards, New York 1957); An Inquiry into Meaning and Truth (New York 1940); Human Knowledge (New York 1948); Logic and Knowledge, ed. r. c. marsh (New York 1956); My Philosophical Development (New York 1959). Studies. p. schilpp, ed., The Philosophy of Bertrand Russell (2d ed. Evanston, Ill. 1946). f. barone, Enciclopedia filosofica (Venice-Rome 1957) 4:251256. r. monk, Bertrand Russell: The Ghost of Madness, 19211970 (New York; London 2001). j. dejnozka, Bertrand Russell on Modality and Logical Relevance (Aldershot, Hants, England; Brookfield, Vt.1999). a. c. grayling, Russell, Past Masters series (Oxford 1996).

[b. f. mcguinness]

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