Bertrand Russell

by Chuck Hague

EDP 380


Bertrand Russell was one of the preeminent thinkers of the 20th century. His work on mathematical logic laid the basis for a good portion of modern mathematics; his political thought was influential both in his time and after; and his philosophical thought is both complicated and highly intelligent. He is considered one of the two or three most important logicians of the 20th century. During his lifetime he was a high profile figure and grew to have a high degree of respectability -- in fact, he died at age 97, in 1970, so during his own lifetime he saw his own fame grow to immense proportions. He also fits Howard Gardner's ideas on genius in many ways, although not all of them, as we shall see.

But Bertrand Russell the man was a fascinating study also. Wracked with internal doubts, he created an immense burden on those he was closest to, yet astonished all with his prodigious intelligence; alternately cheerful and suicidally depressed, Russell swung between manic joy and bleak misanthropy. His was an immensely fascinating life.

Thus, I have chosen in this study of Russell to look at both aspects of his life -- his work, and his personality and the events in his life, so as to further illuminate this fascinating individual.

Russell's Ideas

Russell's areas of interest were interlinked: mathematical and logical, exemplified by the Principia Mathematica and works on such subjects as logical atomism; philosophical; and political, with his strong commitment to anti-war ideals and his ideas on ideal governments.

Russell was, early on in life, fascinated by geometry -- in fact, he found an inherent beauty in it. He approached everything in life analytically, and of course mathematics is the purest, albeit most abstract, form of analytic thought. The mathematical portion of his work is represented by the book Principia Mathematica, which attempted to provide a total logical basis for mathematics. It was a huge, daunting undertaking; along the way, Russell enlisted the help of his friend, Alfred North Whitehead, and the task of writing the book took over ten years.

The book is complicated; exceedingly complicated, in fact. Russell biographer Ray Monk calls it almost totally incomprehensible, and Russell himself recognized that he had written a work that few in the world would ever read and fewer would understand. The three volume work, which is filled with symbols that Russell and Whitehead devised for the specific purpose of writing the book, doesn't even reach the "occasionally useful" proof of 1 + 1 = 2 until almost halfway through.

On top of this, Russell ran into a paradox while writing the book. This paradox, called Russell's Paradox, deals with the set of all sets that are not members of themselves. Attempting to construct such a set leads to an unavoidable paradox. It is analogous to the thought problem: If the barber is defined as someone who cuts the hair of those people who do not cut their own hair, who cuts the barber's hair? This logical problem dogged Russell incessantly and was a flaw in the architecture of Principia Mathematica. In fact, later in the century, the logician Kurt Godel proved that, as Monk puts it: "there can . . . be no logical theory within which all truths about numbers can be derived as theorems; all logical theories of mathematics are destined to be incomplete. Indeed, the incompleteness of formal theories of mathematics is itself a demonstrable theorem!"

Thus, Russell's hope in writing Principia Mathematica was inherently impossible, and the work that took him 10 years of hard labor was flawed from the onset, although he of course could not know this. Still, Principia Mathematica, even with its flaws, is an extremely important book, because it put forth many useful ideas that were utilized by later mathematicians to come. Principia Mathematica was the only purely mathematical book Russell would write during his life; or at least, it represented the major purely mathematical output, because it is true that later in life he wrote textbooks and more popular books that attempted to put forth a simpler view of his mathematical ideas. It is important to remember, also, that Russell approached most subjects in a highly analytical matter, and a lot of his work on logic approaches mathematical exactitude.

In logic, Russell also had interesting ideas. He rejected the ideas that many people were putting forth about the nonexistence of what we call reality; unsurprisingly, he favored an empirical, exact approach to logic, which stated that everything we sense really does exist. He also rejected anything that he could not find proof for -- his belief that everything needed a strong philosophical and logical basis was a bone of contention between him and many other logicians -- and although during his life he expressed an admiration for the "mystical," and an appreciation for religion in general, especially its humanistic elements, he could not accept the idea of God or any other forces beyond provable, natural ones. This led to such works as his famous essay, Why I Am Not a Christian.

This was Russell's basic worldview; but what is interesting about his beliefs is that they were mutable, always in a constant state of flux. For example, at one point in his life he argued passionately for the linkage of logic to human thought processes; a short time later, he dismissed as absurd the claim that logic was based solely on mental constructs.

This rejection of the dependence of objects upon the subjectivity of the observer became central to Russell's thoughts on philosophy. He came to devise a theory that stated that all the things we sense in an object -- size, color, shape, etc. -- are really independent of our sensation of the object; that is to say, that a blue chair is blue because it is blue, not because a human being thinks it is blue. This empiricist philosophy was going out of vogue at the time Russell expressed it, but largely thorough his efforts it had a resurgence.

Another important philosophical idea that Russell came up with was logical atomism, which is stated thusly by author A. J. Ayer: The idea of logical atomism is that "the world consists of simple particulars which have only simple qualities and stand only in simple relations to one another." In Principia Mathematica, Russell was attempting to break mathematics up into logical, linked chunks that could build all of mathematics; with the idea of logical atomism, he expanded this idea to reality in general. These particulars are propositions that are chosen deductively; and from these simple particulars one can, by combining them correctly, describe anything there is to describe.

Another area where Russell was active was in politics. His political thought began around World War I, which Russell fervently opposed. Interestingly, Russell did not oppose the war because he was totally pacifistic, although he had many pacifistic impulses; rather, he saw the war as an unnecessary conflict between civilized countries. It bothered him deeply that almost every person in England seemed to be infused with a vicious bloodlust that Russell couldn't comprehend.

Because of his impotent anger and depression over the war, Russell began to think obsessively about what it was in human nature that caused these conflicts. He became politically active (as I shall mention later on), and soon became an eminent political thinker.

Russell came to decide that men were driven by deep, dark impulses. In this, he was speaking partially autobiographically, for Russell was sometimes frightened by his astonishing capacity for hatred and bile, which every once in a while came to the surface. Thus, although he believed that people could do good, he also decided that there was an animal portion of man -- the "tiger" -- that lusted for blood.

However, Russell was not necessarily pessimistic. He thought that, given modern mechanized society, we could have a utopia, if only we arranged governments properly. He believed in a democratic system -- "democratic" meaning, to Russell, a system where at least most citizens had political power -- but he also held certain socialistic ideals, such as proletariat worker communes.

Russell also valued personal liberty very highly, and for this reason he was extremely critical of the Russian communist system that came into place during the first part of the 20th century, even though when it first began he had high hopes for it. However, when he visited Russia in the 1910s, he was appalled by the lack of interest in the plight of the average Russian citizen, and he was turned off strongly by the elitist and illogical views of the Russian leaders, such as Lenin, whom he met and talked with. However, he was not willing to renounce his belief in a certain type of socialism; he just thought that the Russians were going about it the entirely wrong way.

Russell also, during the first world war, came up with the idea of having a central peacekeeping force, something like NATO, that would police the world; thus, individual nations could disarm. This idea of unilateral disarmament mixed with a central peacekeeping force, naturally, brought Russell a lot of flak at the time; but it is apparent that he was ahead of his time in this regard.

Thus, it is obvious that Bertrand Russell was astonishingly varied in his intellectual pursuits. He even, later in life, took up writing short fiction. And in this short synopsis of his work, I have only begun to scratch the surface of Russell's astonishing work output. The Russell archives have over 40,000 letters written by him; and biographer Ray Monk notes, "Rarely can Russell have passed a day in his long lifetime without writing, in one form or another, two or three thousand words." All of this information can also help us to fit Russell into Gardner's framework of the seven intellegences. Russell was quite obviously high on the mathematical and the verbal/linguistic scales, and indeed he had some sort of intra- and inter-personal skills, and I think that his problems with other people, as we shall see later, did not stem from a lack of skill in these areas, but a lack of desire to implement those skills.

Russell's Life

Bertrand Russell was born in 1872, to two decidedly non-Victorian parents. They did not have much respect for the confining and judgmental times in which they lived; and had they raised Russell through his childhood, it is entirely conceivable that he would have turned out a more well-balanced, if much less interesting, person. As it was, his mother and sister died of diphtheria in 1874; soon thereafter, his father, whose spirit had been broken by their deaths, died himself.

By this time, Russell was not yet 5 years old, so he was not left with much of any recollection of his parents. Because he was orphaned, he went, with his brother Frank, to live with his grandmother. His grandmother was the opposite of Russell's parents: she was strongly Victorian, with deep-set religious ideals and an aversion to the non-conventional ideas his parents had held.

Thus, this was the atmosphere the young Russell grew up in. His brother Frank heavily resented the cloying, reactionary atmosphere; but Russell simply learned to suppress all of his emotions, thus hiding his misgivings effectively from his grandmother. In fact, this sublimation of feelings was something that Russell practiced all his life, although it was not always healthy; he was extremely uncomfortable about letting others see his true, inner self, and whenever he was in danger of revealing deep, unwanted emotions to others, he reverted to cold superficiality. This all fits intriguingly in with Gardner's framework; Gardner stresses a unique childhood in many of those he deems creative geniuses, and certainly Russell's childhood experiences were to have a substantial impact on him later in life.

At the age of 18, Russell went away to college. While he was there, he fell in love with a woman by the name of Alys Smith. She was to be the first of Russell's many loves in his life, and the first woman to feel the frightening bitterness that Russell was capable of dealing out to those women whom he used and then discarded.

Russell decided that he wanted to marry Alys, but his grandmother attempted to stop their marriage. She tried a number of ploys, and almost succeeded in breaking Russell's will when she argued that Russell might well go insane, or produce insane offspring, if he married Alys. Although this argument was completely without basis in fact, it instilled a deep fear in Russell; and for his entire life, the fear of going insane hung over him, especially during times when he was exceptionally depressed.

However, in the end, he carried through on his intentions to marry Alys, and they were wed in 1894. Russell soon found disappointment, though, because his idealized mental image of what he wanted Alys to be was unlike what she really could be. Thus began the gradual disintegration of their marriage that would take years to finally play out to its sad conclusion. Meanwhile, Russell began to cast around for other women to fixate upon. Thus, he soon became infatuated with Alys' sister Mary; soon afterward, he began a series of flirtations with a number of women.

Also around this time, he began work on the Principia Mathematica. In a pattern that would be evident many times in Russell's life, he worked on mathematics to escape from the imperfections and sadnesses of life. His relationship with his wife was not the ideal that he wanted it to be, nor could it be. As a friend of Russell's once pointed out, Russell always saw things in black and white; things were right or wrong, happy or sad. There was no grey area, no middle ground. Thus, Russell's fantasies about married life with Alys did not come to fruition, and to get away from his increasingly unhappy life he retreated to the world of mathematics, which was just as pure and logical as he wanted his life to be. This was a pattern in Russell's life: often much of his best work was done when he was trying to escape the world around him. And here is a link to another of Gardner's ideas -- the faustian bargain. What Russell is displaying here, in fact, is an almost total inversion of the idea of the faustian bargain; instead of his work causing him to go through unpleasant circumstances, unpleasant circumstances caused him to retreat into the rational, ordered world of his inner thoughts, where he could best get work done. This was a pattern that would repeat in Russell's life: whenever he was especially depressed, those were times of great productivity and output; but when he was cheerful, his work seemed more insignificant and he usually had a much harder time working.

Soon, Russell found himself deeply infatuated with another woman -- Evelyn Whitehead, the wife of Alfred Whitehead -- and along with this, he gradually came to realize that he no longer loved Alys. At first, he was able to rationalize these thoughts away; but soon it became apparent to himself that he no longer loved her. An oppressive gloom settled upon their home life, and Russell persuaded Alys to go away on a "rest cure," while Russell worked on his mathematical ideas.

While Alys was away, Russell convinced himself that the reason he no longer loved her was not because of anything wrong with him, but because of some inherent fault in her personality. Thus, when she finally came back home from the "rest cure," hoping that Russell would reassure her that he loved her, he instead decided to tell her that he no longer loved her. He rationalized this by creating an ethos wherein truth was supreme; by his new, bleak system of reasoning, all life was sadness, and one could only try to tell the truth whenever one could, even if it caused pain. This was a twisted ethos, and in reality all that Russell was doing was creating a framework in which he could feel morally justified for being cruel to Alys. In fact, after explicitly telling her he no longer loved her, it was apparent that she still loved him, so he set about to coldly destroy her affection for him, by being vicious and cruel.

This, of course, was exceedingly difficult on Alys, who shortly thereafter had a nervous breakdown. This was the state of affairs in their marriage for a shockingly long time, with Alys continually hoping for Russell's love and Russell, in turn, being vicious and bitter towards her; eventually he lapsed into a constant coldness.

In 1909, Russell finally finished the Principia Mathematica (although it took another 4 years until it finally was published). Still, it was a great weight off his shoulders, and left him feeling a bit bewildered; the project that he'd been working on for so many years was now finished, and he didn't quite know what to do with himself.

Shortly thereafter, though, he found something to do. Of course, it had to do with a woman. The woman in question was a married woman, Lady Ottoline Morrell, whom he promptly fell in love with. Shortly after meeting her he slept with her, and for a man who had for so many years been living in a joyless marriage, this succession of events unsurprisingly caused him to attach onto Ottoline with a religious fervor. However, he showed a shocking propensity towards selfishness in their relationship. Russell expected Ottoline to pay attention to every little detail of his life; but cared very little for how she felt. He went so far as to demand that she divorce her husband in favor of him, which of course she didn't want to do. Over time his completely unreasonable demands on her and her time became such that they broke off their affair. That, actually, is not quite the right way to put it; rather, they broke up and got back together a series of times before finally ending it for good (although Ottoline, amazingly, continued to be a close friend).

Part of Russell's and Ottoline's problems stemmed from a fundamental difference in philosophies. Russell happened to be in favor of a philosophy that minimized reliance upon ordinary human nature; he wanted a view that transcended the self and escaped from it. On the other hand, Ottoline wanted an earthbound philosophy that spoke to peoples' everyday lives, not a rarefied, elitist philosophy like Russell's. When she attempted to explain this to Russell, he basically ignored her; this was something he often did with those he cared about. He wanted so much to be compatible with those he cared about that he would convince himself that they were in agreement with him, even though he and they had fundamental differences. Thus, he wanted so much for Ottoline to be in agreement with his philosophies that he refused to believe that she disagreed with him.

Another bone of contention between the two was Ottoline's deeply held religious beliefs. This galled Russell and he often tried to talk her out of her religious views. He never was able to, of course, but it was another example to Ottoline of how Russell attempted to make her into who he wanted her to be.

However, the breakup with Ottoline was still in the future when he met Ludwig Wittgenstein. He instantly took a liking to this fervent Austrian, whom he considered to be highly intelligent. In fact, he and Wittgenstein turned out to have almost opposite beliefs, and although Wittgenstein knew this, Russell, like with Ottoline, convinced himself that he and Wittgenstein were in agreement on almost all issues, with only minor variations. Russell began writing a book on logic, expecting the work that Wittgenstein was working on to help validate his ideas. In fact, the directions that Wittgenstein was going in were opposed almost diametrically to Russell's ideas, but Russell refused to accept this. He in fact modified many of his ideas in the direction of Wittgenstein's, in order, it seems, to convince himself that his ideas were close to Wittgenstein's! When finally Wittgenstein got exasperated with Russell and explained exactly how dissimilar they were, it crushed Russell; he recalled it later as one of the low points in his life.

This is a parallel to Gardner's ideas on peer influence on genius. Russell was exceedingly dependent upon his peers, and opened himself up to them so much that they could cause him deep pain. We see this in his relationship with Wittgenstein and later with such people as D. H. Lawrence -- many of Russell's ideas were formed with these people and they had profound effects on his life.

Around the same time Russell and Wittgenstein were having their odd friendship, Russell met Joseph Conrad, whose works, most notably Heart of Darkness, he appreciated deeply. Conrad had a strong effect on Russell. He identified deeply with Conrad's fiction, because it dealt with the "terrible passionate fire" that lurks right below the surface of the human soul. Conrad, Russell felt, had touched that fire like few had; Conrad had a couple of nervous breakdowns, and Russell felt that this was an externalization of Conrad's thematic ideas. Heart of Darkness explores these themes: it is about a metaphorical journey to the inner, hidden portion of the human soul, and Conrad argues that often the journey there can drive one mad. This fit Russell's viewpoint exactly: it was better, he felt, to get in touch with the inner, dark self, even if it drove you mad, rather than live a superficial, unexamined life. It is ironic that Russell felt this way, considering he rarely showed others his true self, preferring to always hide it. Another story of Conrad's, the short story "The Secret Sharer," deals with a ship captain who hides a stowaway in his room; soon the captain begins to feel a deep affinity with the stowaway, and comes to see the man as a part of himself, as his other half. This spoke to the part of Russell that wanted a soulmate, that wanted to share everything with someone who was almost exactly like him. Conrad affected Russell so much that he (Russell) even paid Conrad the deep honor of naming his first child John Conrad Russell.

In 1914, Russell left for a tour of America. This was an important tour for a couple of reasons. First, Russell showed a very English distaste for America; he thought it largely soulless and irritating. Secondly, while serving as a visiting professor at Harvard, he met a young student by the name of T. S. Eliot, who would come to be a good friend of Eliot's and would later portray Russell in his poem "Mr. Apollinax." Third, he met a young lady by the name of Helen Dudley, whom he slept with a couple of days after he met her. Russell, as he was wont to do, decided that he was in love with her; coupled with his waning affair with Ottoline, he decided that it was time to get married. He told Helen that he wanted to marry her, and she excitedly agreed.

However, when he returned to England, he decided that he still loved Ottoline; and within days decided he no longer was interested in Helen. Thus, when she came over by ship soon thereafter, he ignored her cruelly.

Another important event occurred around this time: Habsburg archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo, and shortly thereafter, to Russell's great consternation, war broke out. His distress over the outbreak of the war was the ostensible reason that he broke up with Helen, although she didn't buy it, and for good reason: it wasn't the truth. In fact, this was simply another example of Russell's vagaries concerning women.

The war brought out a different side of Russell. His outrage at the war drove him to lecture against it; and since he was already an eminent public figure, people listened to him. Russell became a big enough irritation to the government that they began to take constant note of him.

Soon after the beginning of the war, Russell met D. H. Lawrence. Like Wittgenstein and Conrad, Russell decided that he'd found a fellow soul; and, in a series of events disturbingly similar to what had occurred with Wittgenstein, Russell decided to cast Lawrence in a role that he was not suited to play: that of someone who agreed completely with Russell. In fact, Lawrence didn't agree totally with Russell's philosophies; although both Russell and Lawrence opposed the war, they did so for totally different reasons. While Russell loathed the war because he saw it an unnecessary conflict, Lawrence saw the war from an entirely different perspective: he saw it as an example of the mechanization of society, which he hated with a deep fervor. Lawrence disliked mechanization because it stood against what he believed in most, which was the individual spirit. This, of course, was the exact opposite of Russell's philosophy: Russell, instead of glorifying the self, wanted to suppress it in favor of more refined, civilized, logical culture.

In 1915, Russell fell in love with Vivien Eliot, T. S. Eliot's wife. Their odd affair lasted, off and on, until 1918. Part of the reason for the affair was the strain between Mr. and Mrs. Eliot; theirs was not a positive marriage. Another reason was Russell's constant searching for love, and Mrs. Eliot happened into his sights just as his relationship with Ottoline was reaching another low ebb.

The affair between Russell and Vivien Eliot, although understated by Russell's terms, still had a bad toll when he, inevitably, dumped her; and, as T. S. Eliot once noted, although it was not a primary cause of Vivien's later mental problems, certainly didn't help them at all. In fact, Vivien Eliot spent the last 9 years of her life in a mental institution; but by that time, Russell was done with her and long gone.

Another important event happened around this time: in 1918, the government finally got tired of Russell's constant badgering of them and sent him to jail for his anti-war sentiments. He was able, with the help of his friends, to spend his 6 month term in relative comfort; his prison cell was well-decorated and actually Russell was happy for most of his jail stay, finding it nice to be away from the hectic demands of the outside world.

A source of friction at this time was Russell's desire to have legitimate children. He tried repeatedly to convince Ottoline to divorce her husband, marry him, and have a child, but she would have none of it; and he also began an affair with yet another married woman, Collete O'Niel. He wanted to have a child with her, but she (unsurprisingly) also would not divorce her husband and marry him for the sake of having a legitimate child.

After his release from jail, Russell met a woman by the name of Dora Black, whom he fell in love with also, although at this point it meant that he was having affairs with three women simultaneously. Her main attraction to him was that she, unlike the other women he was having affairs with, wanted a child.

Soon after this, Russell visited Russia; and, as mentioned earlier, was appalled by the lack of civil rights he saw there. Upon returning, he became one of the few intellectuals of his day to openly denounce Russia's governing style.

After returning from Russia, Russell quickly embarked on another trip, this time to China. He took Dora with him, and although they both were enchanted with China -- Russell said it was a virgin country, untouched by the sullying hand of progress -- their visit was marred when Russell became deathly ill. He almost died, and in fact some Japanese newspapers reported that he had died, but he recovered after a couple of months. Upon his recovery, he was greeted with the news that Dora was pregnant. Jubilant, he returned to Britain, and finally obtained a divorce from Alys, whom he had, shockingly, still technically been married to all these years. He then married Dora, who soon gave birth to John Conrad Russell; two years later, a daughter, Kate, was born.

Around 1930, Russell and Dora, unable to find sufficient schooling for their children, founded a school that was based on their progressive philosophies. However, in 1932, Russell left Dora, and she had to run the school herself. Shortly thereafter, Russell married again, for a third time.

In 1940, Russell went to America to be a visiting professor at the University of New York City. However, an outcry arose over this: the Catholic hierarchy in New York responded viciously against Russell, who had made his stance for free love and against conventional morality well-known. Under the force of this outcry, the University of New York severed ties with Russell, who would have been in dire financial straits had Dr. Barnes, an eminent Philadelphia millionaire, not invited Russell to give a series of lectures over a five-year span. Unfortunately, disaster struck again, when Barnes broke off the lecture series after less than two years on the grounds that Russell's lectures were, to his taste, underprepared. Russell brought the case to court, and this time had a bit of luck: the judge ruled in favor of Russell and he was awarded damages.

Upon returning to England, Russell obtained a fellowship at Trinity college in 1944, and soon after that, the British authorities, who previously had been skeptical of Russell because of his staunch anti-war stance, decided that Russell was respectable, partly because of his anti-Communist stance. He was sent, in 1948, to Berlin to give a series of lectures, and soon thereafter embarked to Norway for the same reason. However, on the way there, his plane crashed into the ocean; all those who had been in the non-smoking compartment were killed, but Russell, who had a penchant for pipe-smoking and thus was in the smoking section, was able to swim to safety with apparently little harm. As A. J. Ayer says, without the slightest hint of irony: "Though he looked frail, he had a very strong constitution and except for an attack of pneumonia in 1953 which nearly killed him, and another severe illness ten years later, he enjoyed remarkably good health till the end of his life." If that is "remarkably good health," I'd rather not have it.

From now till his death, Russell's fame grew. In 1949, he was awarded the Order of Merit, and was made an Honorary Fellow of the British Academy. In 1949, he divorced his second wife, and in 1952 married his third wife, Edith Finch. His relationship with her was unlike the relationships with his previous wives; it was astonishingly sedate and pleasant, possibly because Russell had known Edith for a number of years before marrying her.

Russell continued to be active during the last couple of decades of his life. He took part in anti-nuclear rallies, met with heads of states to discuss policies, and served as president of the british Who Killed Kennedy? organization.

On February 2, 1970, Bertrand Russell died, a couple of months before his 98th birthday. He had lived an astonishingly full and complex life, as well as having had an enormous impact on the world around him. As Russell biographer Ronald Clark notes, "When he was born, the old queen still had three decades to lord it over palm and pine; when he died, men had walked on the moon." In many ways, Russell cohered to the ideas that Gardner has set forth about creative genius, but this doesn't mean that Russell lived a usual or average life.