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Russell, Bertrand


Bertrand Arthur William Russell (1872–1970) was a British philosopher, logician, mathematician, and essayist as well as a champion of humanitarian ideals and influential critic of nuclear weapons. Best known as one of the founders of analytic philosophy, Russell was born into an aristocratic family in Trelleck, Monmouthshire, Wales, on May 18. In 1890, he entered Trinity College, Cambridge, where he later held a professorship until he was dismissed in 1916 for writing pacifist propaganda and leading anti-war protests. Russell then traveled, lectured, and continued to write both philosophical treatises and social and moral essays. He rejoined the faculty at Trinity College in 1944 and received the Nobel Prize in Literature and the British Order of Merit in 1950. After World War II, he became a leading figure in the effort to control nuclear weapons proliferation. Russell died at Penrhyndeudraeth, Wales, on February 2.

Logic, Mathematics, and Philosophy

Through his early examination of the philosophy of G. W. Leibniz, Russell became convinced that logical analysis is the most important method for philosophical investigation. So motivated, he set about the tasks of making logic a more robust and powerful field and clearing away conceptual difficulties that had impeded its progress. One such difficulty was posed by a paradox that Russell himself discovered in 1901: The set of all sets that are not members of themselves is a member of itself if and only if it is not a member of itself. Russell's Paradox undermined naïve set theory, which served as the foundation of mathematics. Russell's own solution to the paradox was his theory of types of sets, which led to the foundation of modern axiomatic set theory. In his seminal work, Principia Mathematica (1910–1913), written jointly with Alfred North Whitehead (1861–1947), he attempted to derive all of mathematics from a restricted set of logical axioms. Although undermined by Gödel's proof that some propositions in any axiomatic system of suitable complexity remain undecidable, the formal system was a major intellectual achievement.

Along with G. E. Moore (1873–1958), Russell is credited with founding analytic philosophy, which rejected idealism and what is regarded as meaningless or incoherent philosophy in favor of clear and precise propositions. For Russell the application of analytic methods to traditional philosophical problems could resolve long-standing disputes. For example, in "On the Relations of Universals and Particulars" (1911) he claimed that logical arguments could resolve the ancient problem of universals. Among his most important contributions to the philosophy of language is his "theory of descriptions" expounded in "On Denoting" (1905). Russell was also a teacher of Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889–1951), the founder of that version of analytic philosophy known as linguistic philosophy, who later eclipsed his mentor in terms of philosophical importance. Karl Popper (1902–1994) and W. V. Quine (1908–2000) were also heavily influenced by Russell, and in fact Popper once referred to him as "the greatest philosopher since Kant" (1976, p. 109).

Science and Technology in Society

In his autobiography (1967–1969), Russell divulged that he was moved by a profound sympathy for the suffering of humankind. This motivated him to write about political and moral issues and to practice social activism. His ethical writings include Why I Am Not a Christian (1927) and Marriage and Morals (1929), both of which aroused popular antipathy. In fact, he lost a lectureship at City College in New York in 1940 because he was deemed "morally unfit" to teach. Russell's experiments in social and political activism included peace protests during World War I (for which he served six months in jail), three unsuccessful campaigns for a seat in Parliament, and founding and operating an experimental school from the late 1920s to the early 1930s. He also served as president of the International War Crimes Tribunal in 1967, which investigated the conduct of the United States during the Vietnam War.

Russell's views about the role of science in society are outlined in such works as Icarus, or the Future of Science (1924), in which he fears "that science will be used to promote the power of dominant groups, rather than to make men happy. Icarus, having been taught to fly by his father Daedalus, was destroyed by his rashness. I fear that the same fate may overtake the populations whom modern men of science have taught to fly" (p. 1).

In The Impact of Science on Society (1951) Russell discussed the potential for science to be utilized for mass psychological propaganda, and he made an unsettling observation about the potential for biological warfare to limit human population growth. In a 1958 essay, "The Divorce between Science and 'Culture'," he argued that governments and citizens must have better science education in order to avoid the potential disasters presented by modern science and technology.

Although he maintained a general optimism about science, including some controversial applications, Russell was concerned about a cultural lag in which human knowledge was expanding more quickly than the ability to utilize it wisely. Nowhere was this concern more evident than in his efforts to fight nuclear weapons and their international proliferation. The opening lines of "The Bomb and Civilization" (1945) expressed both his faith in science and his panic about how science can be easily misused: "It is impossible to imagine a more dramatic and horrifying combination of scientific triumph with political and moral failure than has been shown to the world in the destruction of Hiroshima." It should be noted, however, that while the United States still had a monopoly on nuclear arms, Russell advocated a preemptive war against Stalin, whom he argued was as evil as Hitler (Johnson 1989).

In 1954 Russell delivered his "Man's Peril" broadcast on the BBC, condemning the hydrogen bomb test at Bikini Atoll. The following year Russell and Albert Einstein issued the Russell-Einstein Manifesto, which called for a conference of scientists to discuss "what steps can be taken to prevent a military contest of which the issue must be disastrous to all parties?" This manifesto stimulated the first Pugwash Conference on Science and World Affairs in 1957.

In 1958, Russell became the founding president of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), which promoted nonviolent demonstrations to eradicate nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction. In 1961 (at age 89), he was imprisoned for one week in connection with anti-nuclear protests. Two years later, he established the Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation, to promote his vision of peace, human rights, and social justice. Russell's last essay, "1967," took up the immanent doom presented by nuclear weapons in the scenario of obstinate sovereign states and argued that the only solution is to realize that "peace is the paramount interest of everybody."


SEE ALSO Atomic Bomb; Haldane, J. B. S.; Pugwash Conferences.


Johnson, Paul. (1989). Intellectuals. New York: Harper and Row. Exposes the hypocrisies in the private lives of several intellectuals. The pertinent section on Russell is pp. 204–207.

Popper, Karl. (1976). Unended Quest: An Intellectual Autobiography, rev. edition. LaSalle, IL: Open Court.

Russell, Bertrand. (1903). Principles of Mathematics. London: Cambridge University Press.

Russell, Bertrand. (1905). "On Denoting." In Mind, Vol. 14. Reprinted in Bertrand Russell, 1973, Essays in Analysis (London: Allen and Unwin).

Russell, Bertrand. (1911). "On the Relations of Universals and Particulars." Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 12: 1–24. Reprinted in Bertrand Russell, 1956, Logic and Knowledge (London: Allen and Unwin).

Russell, Bertrand. (1924). Icarus, or the Future of Science. New York: E.P. Dutton.

Russell, Bertrand. (1927). Why I Am Not a Christian. London: Watts.

Russell, Bertrand. (1929). Marriage and Morals. London: George Allen and Unwin.

Russell, Bertrand. (1951). The Impact of Science on Society. New York: Columbia University Press.

Russell, Bertrand. (1967, 1968, 1969). The Autobiography of Bertrand Russell, 3 vols. London: George Allen and Unwin.

Whitehead, Alfred, and Bertrand Russell. (1910–1913). Principia Mathematica, 3 vols. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


Russell, Bertrand. (1945). "The Bomb and Civilization." Glasgow Forward 39(33): 1, 3. Available from:

Russell, Bertrand. (1967). "1967," Available from:

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