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Russell, Bertrand Arthur William, third Earl Russelllocked

  • Ray Monk

Bertrand Arthur William Russell, third Earl Russell (1872–1970)

by Ida Kar, 1953

Russell, Bertrand Arthur William, third Earl Russell (1872–1970), philosopher, journalist, and political campaigner, was born on 18 May 1872 at Ravenscroft, Trelleck, Monmouthshire, the youngest among the three children of John Russell, Viscount Amberley (1842–1876) (the eldest son of the first Earl Russell, previously Lord John Russell), and his wife, Kate, daughter of the second Baron Stanley of Alderley [see Russell, Katharine Louisa, Viscountess Amberley (1842–1874)]. John Francis Stanley (Frank) Russell (1865–1931), who succeeded as the second Earl Russell, was his elder brother.

Childhood and adolescence

Russell's early childhood was marred by tragedy and bereavement. When he was two, his mother and his sister, Rachel, died of diphtheria. Just eighteen months later his father, too, died, leaving him and his brother Frank in the care of their grandparents, Earl and Countess Russell, who lived in Pembroke Lodge, a grace-and-favour house in Richmond Park granted to Lord Russell by Queen Victoria. When Russell was six his grandfather died, after which, he recounted in his autobiography, he used to lie awake at night wondering when his grandmother too would die and leave him.

Russell's grandmother did not die until he reached adulthood, and throughout his childhood and adolescence she was without doubt the person who exerted the greatest influence on him. From her he acquired a devout religious faith and, more lastingly, a deep respect for the role his family had played in the political history of Britain since the time of Henry VIII. His understanding of himself as inheritor of a tradition of opposition to tyranny and authority that went back hundreds of years played a large role in giving him the personal courage that characterized his own political activities. While Frank was sent away to Winchester College, young Bertie (as he was known within the family and, later, to close friends) received from private tutors an education fit for the future prime minister his grandmother hoped and expected him to become. In keeping with the self-conscious progressiveness that characterized the Russell family, this education concentrated, not on Greek and Latin, but on modern languages, economics, constitutional history, science, and mathematics, in all of which Russell excelled. Though he remained comparatively uneducated in music and the pictorial arts, he acquired from his grandmother a deep love of English literature, especially its poetry, that stayed with him for the rest of his life.

Of equal importance for Russell's formative years was the furtive secrecy his grandmother maintained on the subject of his parents. After their deaths she discovered that his mother, Kate, had had, with his father's approval, sexual relations with Douglas Spalding, a tutor they had hired to teach their children (he was terminally ill and she slept with him in order to grant him his wish that he should not die celibate). Lady Russell's shock at this was so great that she hardly mentioned Russell's parents to him, and, on the few occasions that she did so, hinted that he had had a lucky escape in not being brought up by such wicked people. As a result, Russell later said, he 'vaguely sensed a great mystery' (Schilpp, 3) about his parents and would spend much time alone in the garden at Pembroke Lodge wondering what sort of people they had been and why his grandmother was so disapproving of them. He also dwelt on something else he noticed about his grandmother: that she trembled whenever insanity was mentioned.

It is against this background of loss, uncertainty, mystery, and the frustrated yearning to know something about his parents that one must regard what Russell himself saw as the turning point in his childhood intellectual development: his introduction, at the age of eleven, to Euclidean geometry. 'I had not imagined', Russell later wrote, 'that there was anything so delicious in the world … [It was] as dazzling as first love' (Russell, Autobiography, 1.36). What he found so delightful was the intoxicating discovery that some things at least could be demonstrated to be true beyond all possible doubt, their truth being independent of all opinion and all authority, and immune from any kind of uncertainty. This, then, became his model of what human knowledge could, and should, be like—irrefutable, demonstrable, and, above all, certain—and his philosophical career might be seen as a long series of failed attempts to show how such knowledge might be possible. The seeds of his later work on the philosophy of mathematics are discernible in his disappointment at eleven that, though Euclid's theorems could be demonstrated from his axioms, these axioms themselves had to be taken on trust. What he dreamed of was a mathematics in which even the axioms were demonstrable; he further hoped to find that the natural, and even the human, sciences could be founded on such a mathematics. Only then, he thought, would the joy he experienced at discovering the axiomatic method be completely justified and only then could he, and the rest of humanity, claim to really know anything.

Early support for this attitude came from W. K. Clifford's Common Sense of the Exact Sciences, which Russell read as a teenager and which became an enormously important book to him. Clifford's creed, expressed pithily in his lecture 'The ethics of belief' (1877), was that: 'It is wrong always, everywhere, and for any one to believe anything upon insufficient evidence' (Clifford, Lectures and Essays, 1879, 31). It was a view embraced enthusiastically by the adolescent Russell and one which inevitably corroded the religious faith he had acquired from his grandmother.

Russell's earliest surviving philosophical reflections are contained in a diary he began shortly before his sixteenth birthday and centre on the doubts that had begun to assail him concerning religious belief. Knowing that these doubts would offend his grandmother, he disguised his thoughts by writing them in Greek letters, using a system of phonetic transliteration that he had invented himself, and entitling his diary 'Greek exercises'. The first entry confesses: 'I have been irresistably led to such conclusions as would not only shock my people, but have given me much pain' (Russell, Collected Papers, 1.3). Among those conclusions were that immortality, the efficacy of prayer, free will, and even the existence of the soul, were illusory. He was prepared to accept the existence of God, but only as the controlling law of nature, not as a personal deity with a love of mankind, nor as the foundation for morality.

These thoughts served only to alienate Russell still further from his grandmother, and to increase his sense of isolation. 'After the age of fourteen', he writes in his autobiography, 'I found living at home only endurable at the cost of complete silence about everything that interested me' (Schilpp, 7). When, at sixteen, he was sent to a ‘crammer’ school in London to prepare him for the scholarship examination at Cambridge, he hoped, at last, to find friends, but found instead a group of rambunctious boys (most of them future army officers) towards whom he felt only contempt.

In December 1889 Russell was awarded a minor scholarship to read mathematics at Trinity College, Cambridge, to prepare for which he spent the following six months studying the infinitesimal calculus with a private tutor in London. In his last diary entry before he left Pembroke Lodge for Cambridge he announced, with a note of tragedy but also, one senses, with a sense of relief, that he had by this time lost his faith entirely. His earlier view that God had to exist as the provider and controller of nature's laws had, it seems, been undermined by his reading of John Stuart Mill's Autobiography.

Cambridge, 1890–1893

At Cambridge, Russell, aged eighteen, found what he had been looking for all his life until then: companionship. Within a few months of arriving at Trinity he formed a circle of friends with whom, in stark contrast to his home, he could discuss everything that mattered to him. Most of these friends belonged to the famous Cambridge discussion group the Apostles, which, at the prompting of Russell's mathematics tutor, Alfred North Whitehead, elected Russell as a member. ‘The Society’ (as it was known to its members) quickly became the focal point of Russell's undergraduate life. Through it he was introduced to some of the most influential philosophers of the day, including, most notably, John Ellis McTaggart, who, together with the Oxford philosopher F. H. Bradley, was one of the leading members of the neo-Hegelian movement which then dominated the younger generation of British philosophers.

In May 1893 Russell took part one of the mathematical tripos and was placed seventh wrangler, after which, inspired by his discussions with the Apostles, he abandoned mathematics in favour of philosophy, devoting the next year to studying for part two of the moral sciences tripos. His tutors for this were James Ward, Henry Sidgwick, and G. F. Stout, though the biggest influence on his philosophical development remained McTaggart. Russell had been bitterly disappointed by his undergraduate mathematics course, which he felt, by teaching the subject as a series of techniques rather than as a body of truth, had failed to do justice to the delight he had felt at the age of eleven on discovering Euclid's axiomatic system. Significantly, the highlight of his undergraduate philosophical career was an essay he wrote for James Ward on the threat posed to Kant's theory of mathematics by the construction of non-Euclidean systems of geometry, a subject which allowed him to discuss the very question which had bothered him at eleven: how can one know whether Euclid's axioms are true or not? When, in summer 1894, Russell was awarded a starred first in moral sciences and invited to submit a fellowship dissertation, he chose as his topic 'the epistemological bearings of metageometry'.

The dissertation was written within a year, and on the basis of it Russell was awarded a five-year fellowship at Trinity, beginning in 1895. Two years later a revised version was published as An Essay on the Foundations of Geometry, Russell's first philosophical book, in which he provides a partial defence of Kant's theory that the truth of geometry is a necessary condition of all possible experience. This, Russell argues, is correct, though not of Euclidean geometry but of the more abstract and comparatively modern system of ‘projective geometry’. The truth or otherwise of the specifically Euclidean axioms Russell regards as an empirical matter. In a more general sense, however, Russell agrees with Kant in locating the foundations of geometry in the structure of our spatial intuitions. Russell later dismissed the book as a foolish and immature work, and its central claims have not been accepted by either mathematicians or philosophers. None the less, principally through being reviewed at length and with great respect by the eminent French mathematician Henri Poincaré, it served to establish Russell's professional reputation and led to his being invited to deliver a paper at the prestigious International Congress of Philosophy held in Paris in 1900, an event that profoundly affected his career.

First marriage and early philosophical work

On 13 December 1894, at twenty-two, Russell married Alys Whitall (c.1867–1951), daughter of Robert Pearsall Smith, a rich American Quaker, who left Philadelphia to settle in Surrey after scandal had forced him to relinquish his career as a charismatic evangelist. The literary scholar (Lloyd) Logan Pearsall Smith was her brother. Russell's grandmother vehemently opposed the marriage and, in an effort to dissuade him from going ahead with it, explained to him why she trembled at any mention of insanity. There was, she claimed, inherited madness in the Russell family, and if the marriage went ahead it was sure to produce insane children. In support of this claim she revealed to Russell something that had hitherto been carefully concealed from him: his uncle William had been confined to a lunatic asylum since 1874. His aunt Agatha and even his own father, Lady Russell alleged, had also shown signs of mental instability. Though she failed to dissuade Russell from marrying, Lady Russell did instil into her grandson a deep and lasting horror of madness. In a diary entry of the time he records that, after his grandmother's revelations, he felt 'haunted by the fear of the family ghost, which seems to seize on me with clammy invisible hands' and that Pembroke Lodge had begun to seem to him like a vault 'haunted by the ghosts of maniacs' (Russell, Collected Papers, 1.65). The fear of madness transformed his personality and caused him, he later said, 'to avoid all deep emotion and live, as nearly as I could, a life of intellect tempered by flippancy' (Russell, Autobiography, 1.85).

For their honeymoon Russell and Alys travelled to Berlin, where Russell attended lectures on economics and took time to study the doctrines and methods of the Social Democratic Party, then the most influential Marxist movement in Europe. The result was German Social Democracy (1896), Russell's first political book, which, though sympathetic to the reformist aims of the German socialist movement, included some trenchant and far-sighted criticisms of Marxist dogmas. In Berlin, Russell formulated for himself an ambitious scheme of writing two series of books, one on the philosophy of the sciences, the other on social and political questions. 'At last', as he later put it, 'I would achieve a Hegelian synthesis in an encyclopaedic work dealing with theory and practice' (Schilpp, 11). He eventually wrote on all the subjects he intended, but not in the form that he envisaged, for, shortly after finishing his book on geometry, he abandoned the metaphysical idealism that was to have provided the framework for this grand synthesis.

Russell's abandonment of idealism is customarily attributed to the influence of his friend and fellow Apostle, G. E. Moore, but a much greater influence on his thought at this time was in fact the work of a group of German mathematicians that included Karl Weierstrass, Georg Cantor, and Richard Dedekind, who, through the analysis of the fundamental concepts of mathematics, sought to provide it with logically rigorous foundations. Their success in this was, Russell considered, of enormous philosophical as well as mathematical significance; indeed, he described it as: 'the greatest triumph of which our age has to boast' (Mysticism and Logic, 2nd edn, 1917, 82).

Throughout his mathematical studies at Cambridge, Russell had remained ignorant of this body of work. However, in 1896 he was asked by Stout to review for Mind a book by the French philosopher and historian of science Arthur Hannequin called Essai critique sur l'hypothèse des atomes dans la science contemporaine, which contained a discussion of Georg Cantor's theory of transfinite numbers. Though Russell expressed agreement with Hannequin's criticisms of Cantor's theory, he was sufficiently intrigued to make a close study of Cantor's work. Later in that same year, during a visit to America, the importance of Weierstrass's work on the theory of functions was impressed upon him by the mathematicians Frank Morley and James Harkness, and on his return to England he made a study, not only of Weierstrass but also of Dedekind's classic works Continuity and Irrational Numbers and Nature and the Meaning of Numbers. From his reading of Cantor, Weierstrass, and Dedekind, Russell discovered that there were putative mathematical solutions to the problems of continuity and infinity that previously he had thought required neo-Hegelian philosophy to solve.

During his short-lived neo-Hegelian phase Russell had believed that the notions of infinity, continuity, and the infinitesimal introduced contradictions into mathematics which it was, by itself, unable to resolve. These contradictions, he thought, suggested not that mathematics needed to be rebuilt upon more secure foundations, but that it was inherently flawed as a means of understanding reality. Much better, he considered, was the Hegelian approach of overcoming contradiction through a process of dialectical synthesis which led, stage by stage, to the single, indivisible absolute, the reality of which underlay all appearance and the understanding of which was available only to philosophy. Now that he had become convinced by the work of Cantor, Dedekind, and Weierstrass that the differential calculus could be recast without the need for infinitesimals and that the notions of infinity and continuity could be given mathematical definitions that were free from contradiction, this particular motive for embracing Hegelian metaphysics was removed, and Russell adopted the view, which he held for the rest of his life, that analysis, not synthesis, was the surest method for the philosopher and that, therefore, all the grand system building of previous philosophers—including himself—was misconceived.

The Principles of Mathematics

Inspired by the work of the mathematicians whom he had come so greatly to admire, Russell conceived the idea of demonstrating that mathematics not only had logically rigorous foundations but that it was in its entirety nothing but logic. In this he was influenced by Alfred North Whitehead's book A Treatise on Universal Algebra with Applications (1898), which argued that mathematics ought to be understood not, as tradition would have it, as the 'science of quantity', but rather as the study of 'all types of formal, necessary, deductive reasoning' (Whitehead, A Treatise on Universal Algebra, vi). In his understanding of what logic was, however, he was influenced still more by G. E. Moore's article 'The nature of judgment' (1899), from which Russell took a peculiar notion of the nature of propositions that was to bedevil his philosophical thinking for many years.

On Moore's understanding a proposition is not, as the Hegelians would have it, a unity that defies analysis; rather, it is a complex that invites analysis into its constituent parts, which Moore called 'concepts'. These concepts, however, are not, on Moore's theory, elements of thought, but rather the building blocks of the world. Thus a proposition is not a linguistic entity but, as Moore put it, an 'existent', something whose being is independent of thought, and to analyse a proposition is not to investigate a portion of language, but to carve up a piece of the world itself. Logic, the analysis of the relations between propositions, is on this understanding indistinguishable from metaphysics; it is, in other words, an investigation into the most abstract and general features of reality. What follows from this view, and what became a characteristic feature of Russell's method of philosophy, is the conviction that the grammar of linguistic utterances can just as readily disguise as reveal the real logical structure of propositions and, therefore, of reality.

This conception of logic was expressed by Russell with great force and elegance in his widely acclaimed book The Philosophy of Leibniz, which arose out of a series of lectures he gave at Cambridge in Lent term 1899. In this he presents what he describes as 'a reconstruction of the system which Leibniz should have written' (Russell, The Philosophy of Leibniz, 2), two fundamental tenets of which are that 'all sound philosophy should begin with an analysis of propositions' (ibid., 8) and that 'every proposition has a subject and a predicate' (ibid., 14). The first of these Russell accepts, the second he rejects, leading him to claim that if Leibniz had admitted the existence of relational propositions, he would have had no case for denying, as he did, the reality of relations.

In summer 1900 Russell went to Paris to deliver at the International Congress of Philosophy a paper called 'The notion of order and absolute position in space and time', in which he argued (against Kant, the Hegelian tradition, and his former self) that temporal and spatial relations were part of reality and not merely of ‘appearance’. By this time Russell had already begun work on a large book he entitled The Principles of Mathematics, the aim of which was to show that the notions of continuity, infinity, space, time, matter, and motion can all be understood arithmetically, as relations between numbers, both numbers and relations being understood by him to have an objective existence independent of thought and, in particular, of the ‘structure of intuition’ to which he had appealed in his earlier book on geometry.

At Paris, Russell met the Italian mathematician Giuseppe Peano, the head of a movement whose ultimate goal was to construct a single axiomatic system upon which the whole of mathematics could be founded. In pursuit of this aim Peano had invented a special symbolism which he used to construct a system of mathematical logic, at the heart of which is the now-familiar notion of a ‘propositional function’. Using this system, Peano and his colleagues had shown that arithmetic could be founded on a single elegant formal theory which used only three basic ideas (zero, number, and successor) and five initial axioms. Inspired by his meeting with Peano and his study of Peano's work, Russell returned from Paris with an almost ecstatic conviction that he knew the way ahead: if he could show that all mathematical notions were fundamentally arithmetical and that Peano's system was fundamentally a system of logic, then he would have succeeded in his stated aim of demonstrating that mathematics was logic. For this the crucial step would be to show that Peano's axioms could be founded upon a system of logic.

With this in mind Russell developed a theory of 'classes', in which a class is understood as the extension of a propositional function (the propositional function 'x is a man', for example, has as its extension the class of men), and then used that theory to define numbers. In this way, he hoped, Peano's three basic ideas could be shown to be founded upon nothing more than the purely logical notion of 'class'. Excited by these ideas and working at a frenetic pace, Russell set about rewriting The Principles of Mathematics, which he finished on the last day of the year 1900 in a mood of almost limitless confidence and triumph. 'I invented a new subject', he wrote that night to his friend Helen Thomas, 'which turned out to be all mathematics, for the first time treated in its essence' (Monk, Spirit, 133). Finishing this draft of the book was, Russell later said, the highest point of his life, an 'intellectual honeymoon such as I have never experienced before or since' (Russell, Philosophical Development, 73).

Principia mathematica

The draft of The Principles of Mathematics that Russell finished in a state of exaltation at the end of 1900 was never published. In spring 1901 he discovered a contradiction in its basic logical theory that threatened to undermine the entire project. The contradiction, subsequently known as Russell's paradox, arises from the following considerations: some classes are members of themselves (for example, the class of all classes), and some are not (for example, the class of men), so it ought to be possible to construct the class of all classes that are not members of themselves. But, now, if one asks of this class, 'Is it a member of itself?' one becomes enmeshed in an apparently inescapable contradiction: if it is, then it is not, and if it is not, then it is. It is rather like defining the village barber as 'the man who shaves all those who do not shave themselves' and then asking whether he shaves himself or not.

At first this paradox seemed trivial, but the more Russell reflected upon it, the deeper the problem seemed, eventually persuading him that there was something fundamentally wrong with the notion of a class as he had understood it in The Principles of Mathematics. After wrestling with the problem inconclusively for about a year, Russell, in summer 1902, rewrote parts of the book, adding to it a discussion of the contradiction together with a frank admission that he had no satisfactory solution to it. All he could offer was a sketch of a possible solution, with which, he made clear, he was not entirely content. This sketch, to which he gave the name 'the theory of types', has as its basic idea the thought that a class cannot be a member of itself since a class and its members are of different logical types. Therefore there is, contrary to what he had said earlier, no such thing as the 'class of all classes' and the contradiction does not arise. Russell offered this ‘solution’ only as the basis for discussion, a gesture which imparted to the whole book—which in its 1900 manifestation had been quite magisterially self-confident—a tentative and unresolved note.

In May 1902 Russell delivered the book to the Cambridge University Press, and shortly afterwards began a close study of the works of Gottlob Frege, who was then unknown among philosophers, despite having already published the works that are among the classics of the analytic tradition in philosophy: The Foundations of Arithmetic and the series of essays that include 'Sense and reference' and 'Concept and object'. Belatedly Russell discovered that Frege had in these works anticipated the main lines of his own philosophy of mathematics. He decided immediately to write an appendix to his book, outlining Frege's doctrines, acknowledging the importance and the priority of Frege's work, and indicating where he and Frege agreed and disagreed with each other.

In many ways Frege's work was not only an anticipation of Russell's work but also an advance on it. However, his system too was threatened by the paradox that Russell had discovered, and on 16 June 1902 Russell wrote to him informing him of the fact. In reply, Frege wrote that Russell's discovery had left him 'thunderstruck' (Monk, Spirit, 153), since it undermined not only his foundations of arithmetic but, as far as he could see, all possible foundations. While Frege sank into a deep depression, Russell set about repairing the damage by constructing a theory of logic immune to the paradox. Like a malignant cancerous growth, however, the contradiction reappeared in different guises whenever Russell thought that he had got rid of it.

If Russell's delight in contemplating the world of mathematics could be regarded—as he himself was inclined to regard it—as a kind of religion, then these paradoxes brought him to the brink of atheism. He felt about them, he later said, 'much as an earnest Catholic must feel about wicked Popes' (Russell, Philosophical Development, 212). The analogy is not as fanciful as it might appear. For Russell, as for the pre-Socratic philosopher Pythagoras, the contemplation of mathematical objects was the noblest exercise of the intellect that life had to offer, and the access it gave to a world of infinite totalities was, in Russell's view, the nearest thing to religion that was consistent with fidelity to the truth. It was thus crucially important for him to believe that the objects of mathematics, that is, classes, were real. By showing that the notion of class as used in The Principles of Mathematics was contradictory, the paradox threatened to reveal Russell's Pythagorean faith in mathematical certainties to be as ill-founded as his grandmother's faith in a loving God. When Russell described his philosophical development after the discovery of the paradox as a 'retreat from Pythagoras', therefore, he was hinting at a process of disillusionment every bit as devastating as the loss of his childhood faith in Christianity.

In seeking a solution to the problems raised by the paradox Russell was helped by his old tutor, Alfred North Whitehead, with whom he had agreed to collaborate in the production of a massive work of logic and mathematics that would serve as the second volume not only to The Principles of Mathematics, but also to Whitehead's Treatise on Universal Algebra. The extraordinarily ambitious aim of this book was to demonstrate the truth of the thesis that mathematics was logic by actually deriving, one by one, the theorems of mathematics from an axiomatic system of logic.

The problem that bedevilled this project from the start was that of deciding what, in the light of Russell's paradox, that system of logic should be. Between 1903 and 1909 Russell struggled with this problem, and in the process abandoned one element after another of the Pythagorean view of logic that lies at the heart of The Principles of Mathematics. At an early stage he decided that classes did not, after all, exist. They were 'logical fictions', the appearance of which was generated by the construction of propositional functions. Related to this is Russell's argument in his seminal article 'On denoting' (1905) that what, in The Principles of Mathematics, he had called 'denoting concepts' did not exist. Denotation, on Russell's early view, was the logical (rather than linguistic) relation between a concept and an object; characteristic of denotation is that in language it is achieved through descriptions rather than names. For example, 'the next prime after 7' is a concept that denotes the number 11. Such concepts occupy a central place in The Principles of Mathematics, because classes are typically identified by denoting phrases ('the class of all men', for example). In seeking to solve the paradox Russell came to the conclusion that one of the central problems was that, in language, it is possible to construct denoting phrases to which no object corresponds, such as 'the present king of France' or, more relevantly, 'the class of all classes that do not belong to themselves'.

The solution presented to this problem in 'On denoting' is characteristically radical. Denoting concepts, Russell now believed, are as illusory as classes, and all denoting phrases are, by themselves, meaningless. Like classes, denoting concepts are logical fictions, and denoting phrases are 'incomplete symbols' that acquire a meaning only in the context of a proposition. According to the celebrated 'theory of descriptions' outlined in 'On denoting', the descriptive phrase 'the present king of France' is meaningless. A proposition which contains it, however, such as 'the present king of France is bald', is not meaningless but false, since, when understood properly, it is not, as appearance would suggest, a single proposition predicating baldness of a non-existent entity; rather it is a conjunction of three propositions:

The propositional function ‘x is at present king of France’ is not always false. If the propositional function ‘y is at present king of France’ is true for any y, then y is identical to x (that is, there is only one present king of France). x is bald.

By means of this rather convoluted analysis, then, 'The present king of France is bald' is shown to be a meaningful, but false, assertion.

Dispensing with classes and denoting concepts was, Russell considered, a large step forward in constructing a logical theory that would withstand the threat posed by the paradox, but it did not, by itself, entirely solve the problem, since, as he discovered at an early stage, a paradox exactly analogous to the one about classes that he had discovered in 1901 can be generated using the notion of a propositional function in place of that of a class. Immediately after finishing 'On denoting' Russell attempted to deal with this problem through the construction of a formal system—to which he gave the name 'substitution theory'—in which there are no propositional functions, but only propositions. In place of the variables characteristic of propositional functions, one would have, in this theory, a technique of substituting one individual for another in propositions that share the same form.

For the first half of 1906 Russell was confident that in the 'substitution theory' he had found the solution to his problem. By the autumn, however, he had rejected it, having discovered that it, too, generated contradictions analogous to the original paradox. His reaction was to develop a theory according to which propositions, like classes and denoting concepts, were 'logical fictions', and the sentences expressing them, like denoting phrases, 'incomplete symbols'. Truth, Russell now maintained, was not a relation between a proposition and a fact, but rather a relation between a judgment and a fact, a judgment being not an abstract Platonic entity (such as he had earlier conceived propositions), but a mental act.

In the following year Russell developed what has become known as the ‘ramified theory of types’, which he and Whitehead adopted as the basic logical structure of Principia mathematica. Whereas the earlier ‘simple’ theory of types had posited a hierarchy of objects—individuals, classes of individuals, classes of classes of individuals, etc.—the ramified theory establishes a hierarchy of judgments or, more precisely, of ‘levels of truth’. The result is a logical theory of dizzying complexity: statements about numbers are reduced to statements about classes, which are, in turn, reduced to the theory of propositional functions, which is, ultimately, grounded in a hierarchy of judgments. Nevertheless, Russell and Whitehead considered themselves to have found the theory they were looking for, and in 1909 the colossal manuscript of Principia mathematica was delivered to the Cambridge University Press, to be published in three volumes between 1911 and 1913.

On the day when he delivered it Russell wrote to his friend Helen Flexner: 'I imagine no human being will ever read it through' (Monk, Spirit, 194). It is indeed unreadable, but it is nevertheless one of the most impressive intellectual monuments of the twentieth century. To Russell's satisfaction, it demonstrated its central thesis—that mathematics is a branch of logic—but an important question to which it gave only a confused answer is: what is logic? In the decade following the publication of Principia Russell was provided with what he came to regard as a definitive answer to this question by his pupil Ludwig Wittgenstein, an answer that was to complete the ‘retreat from Pythagoras’.

The deterioration of his first marriage

The personal background to Russell's herculean labours on Principia mathematica was a married life that was bleak, joyless, and in the end unbearable. In the years immediately after their marriage, Russell and Alys lived in a small house called The Millhanger in Fernhurst, Sussex, close to where Alys's parents lived. Within a few years, Russell came to loathe Alys's mother, whom he considered vindictive and cruel. Alys, however, to Russell's great irritation, remained steadfastly loyal to her mother and Russell began to seek out the attentions of other women, not least Alys's sister, Mary, to whom he had been attracted even before his marriage. About the time of his visit to Paris in 1900, he fell in love with Evelyn Ada Maud Rice Whitehead, née Willoughby-Wade (1865–1950), his colleague's wife, a love which he kept scrupulously hidden. During Lent term 1901 the Russells and Whiteheads lived together in a house in Cambridge, where Russell, while witnessing Evelyn suffering from an angina attack, underwent what he later described as 'a sort of mystic illumination' that, he claimed, transformed him into 'a completely different person' (Russell, Autobiography, 1.146). The 'life of intellect tempered by flippancy' into which he had settled suddenly seemed to him unendurable and was replaced by a conviction that 'in human relations one should penetrate to the core of loneliness in each person and speak to that'.

What he meant, he made clear in a letter years later to Ottoline Morrell, was that he was seized with an overwhelming desire to relieve what he considered to be Evelyn Whitehead's loneliness. In summer 1901 Russell announced that he could no longer bear to live close to Alys's mother, and he and Alys moved into the Whiteheads' home in Grantchester. There, in new year 1902, Russell in another moment of sudden illumination came to realize that he no longer loved his wife. Though he did not then tell her this, his attitude towards her changed to one of coldness. The effect on Alys was devastating and, after falling into a deep depression, she moved to Brighton to take a ‘rest cure’, while Russell remained with the Whiteheads. When Alys returned to Fernhurst in the summer, she asked Russell directly whether he still loved her, and it was then that he told her that his love was dead and could never be revived. He and she could stay married, he said, and they could live together, but he no longer wished to share a bedroom with her. In a rather unsettling diary entry of the time, Russell describes how, that night, he listened to 'her loud, heart-rending sobs, while I worked at my desk next door', and how, by keeping her hopes of reconciliation 'alive but unfulfilled', he considered himself to have 'effected a great moral reformation in her' (Russell, Collected Papers, 12.22–3).

For the next nine years Russell and Alys lived together in a dreadful hollow shell of a marriage, during which time Alys never gave up hope that Russell's love for her would revive, while Russell grew increasingly cold and irritable towards her. Russell's absorption in abstract work provided some kind of consolation from this wretched state of affairs, as did a semi-religious philosophy of life he outlined in an unpublished manuscript called 'The pilgrimage of life', according to which wisdom consists in pursuing the truth, even though an understanding of the truth is not compatible with happiness. The same thought is expressed in 'The free man's worship', which was published in 1903 and which became one of his best-known and most anthologized essays.

In spring 1905 Russell and Alys moved to Bagley Wood, just south of Oxford, where the unhappiness of their lives became so acute that both of them, at different times, spoke of death as a welcome relief. Four years later, after finishing Principia mathematica, Russell devoted himself with great energy to the campaign for re-election of his local Liberal MP, Philip Morrell, during which he became entranced by Morrell's wife, Lady Ottoline Violet Anne Morrell (1873–1938). As a result of his campaigning, Russell, in 1910, was asked to consider becoming the Liberal candidate for the constituency of Bedford. The idea that he might, at this stage in his life, abandon his philosophical career in favour of politics was not as surprising as it might at first appear. He did not at this time have an academic position, and, feeling intellectually worn out by the effort of finishing Principia mathematica, he was tempted to change tack and become a member of parliament. He had, after all, stood for parliament before, in May 1907, when he had been a women's suffrage candidate (though, admittedly, with no danger of actually being elected) at a by-election for the Wimbledon seat. After careful deliberation, however, he declined the offer of the Bedford candidature, and chose instead to accept an offer from Trinity College, Cambridge, of a five-year lectureship. One of the attractions of this was that it would allow him and Alys to live separately, he in Nevile's Court and she in Fernhurst.

The impact of Ottoline Morrell and Ludwig Wittgenstein

Less than a year into his five-year lectureship Russell began an affair with Ottoline Morrell, which transformed his personality and his career. He left Alys, and, for a few years, made his love for Ottoline the very centre of his life. In place of the contemplation of abstract truth, he now substituted an equally intense absorption in his own emotional life, and in place of the austere ethic of 'The free man's worship' he substituted a rather different (though closely related) kind of mysticism—expressed in an unpublished book called 'Prisons'—according to which each of us is offered the chance of escaping the prison of our selves, first through love of another human being and then through contemplation of the infinite. He also, partly under Ottoline's influence, largely lost interest in technical philosophy and began to write in a different, more accessible style. Through writing a best-selling introductory book called The Problems of Philosophy (1912) Russell discovered that he had a gift for writing on difficult subjects for the general public and began increasingly to address his work to that public rather than to the tiny handful of people capable of understanding Principia mathematica.

In the year in which he began his affair with Lady Ottoline, Russell met Ludwig Wittgenstein, who arrived in Cambridge to study logic with Russell. Fired with intense enthusiasm for the subject, Wittgenstein made great progress, and within a year Russell began to look to him to provide the next big step in philosophy and to defer to him on questions of logic. Wittgenstein's own work, however, eventually published in 1922 as Tractatus logico-philosophicus, undermined the entire approach to logic that had inspired Russell's great contributions to the philosophy of mathematics. Russell became persuaded by it that there were, after all, no ‘truths’ of logic at all, that logic consisted entirely of tautologies. Previously he had believed that logic investigated certain abstract and general features of reality; now he was convinced that it was concerned only with the structure of language. This was to be the final step in the 'retreat from Pythagoras' and a further incentive for Russell to abandon technical philosophy in favour of other things.

Not that this abandonment happened suddenly; rather, throughout the period from 1911 to 1914, Russell's interests swung pendulum-like between technical philosophy and his love for Ottoline, the ebb and flow of these vacillations coinciding more or less with the turbulent course of his relationship with Ottoline. What he was singularly unable to sustain, however, was an interest in the question about the nature of logic that Principia mathematica had left unsettled. In 1912 he began a paper called 'What is logic?' in which he made a half-hearted attempt to defend and elucidate the idea that the objects of logic are 'forms', but, discouraged and dissatisfied by his inability to arrive at a coherent view, he left the paper unfinished. After that he felt inclined to leave the question to Wittgenstein. In 1913 he began a large book called 'The theory of knowledge', in which he committed himself both to the view (of which he had become persuaded by Wittgenstein) that there were no such things as logical objects and to the apparently incompatible claim that there had to be 'something which seems fitly described as “acquaintance with logical objects”' (Russell, Theory of knowledge, 97). This book, too, was abandoned after its theory of judgment—a refinement of the theory at the heart of Principia—was severely criticized by Wittgenstein.

These abortive attempts to write something on the problem he considered to be the most pressing philosophical question of the time induced in Russell something of a crisis of self-confidence. In any case he was not entirely sure that he wanted any longer to devote himself to logic. 'Oddly enough,' he wrote to his friend Lucy Donnelly in January 1912, 'I have developed a certain nausea for the subtleties and distinctions that made up good philosophy; I should like to write things of human interest, like bad philosophers, only without being bad' (Monk, Spirit, 245). In pursuit of this aim he adapted some of the material he had written for 'Prisons' into an article entitled 'The essence of religion', which aroused such vehement criticisms from Wittgenstein that Russell quickly lost faith in it. He then tried his hand at fiction and produced an autobiographical short story called 'The Perplexities of John Forstice', which, like so much he wrote during these years, he left unpublished.

By summer 1913 a combination of Wittgenstein's attacks on his philosophical work and the frustrations of his largely unreciprocated passion for Ottoline had left Russell close to a nervous breakdown. In the autumn, however, Wittgenstein left Cambridge for Norway, and Russell and Ottoline agreed to see less of each other. Russell's sanity and self-respect were further restored by a meeting with the novelist Joseph Conrad (for whom Russell had an almost limitless admiration), which led to a friendship between the two that was of immense importance to Russell, if not to Conrad. Turning from logic to epistemology, and with Wittgenstein out of the way, Russell was finally able to produce some publishable philosophy. In a series of essays and a book entitled Our Knowledge of the External World, he expounded a form of empiricism according to which the external world is a 'construction' out of sense-data. In spring 1914 Russell travelled to Harvard to take up a visiting lectureship and to deliver the Lowell lectures, in preparation for which he had written Our Knowledge of the External World. While at Harvard he befriended T. S. Eliot, who was among his students and who, in his poem 'Mr Apollinax', drew a vivid and memorable impression of both Russell and of the effect he had on Harvard society.

After his time at Harvard came to an end Russell visited other American universities and, while in Chicago, met a professor's daughter called Helen Dudley, with whom he spent a night, after which he took the extraordinary step of inviting her to England to become his wife. The emergence of a rival seems to have rekindled Ottoline's passion, and when Russell returned home in June she set out, successfully, to win him back. The unfortunate Miss Dudley set sail for England on 3 August, but by that time Russell had lost any interest he might have had in becoming her husband.

The First World War

On the day after Helen Dudley's ship set sail from New York, Great Britain declared war on Germany. As jubilant crowds gathered in London to celebrate the news, Russell and Ottoline walked among them despairingly, clinging to each other for comfort and support.

At the outbreak of the First World War, Russell became a more or less full-time political agitator, demonstrating the courage in resisting the state which was characteristic of his political activities throughout his long life and which commanded admiration even among those who disagreed with his politics. During the first year of the war his energies were directed at denouncing what he regarded as the betrayal of liberalism by Asquith's government in committing Britain to a war against Germany. His view, shared by the Union of Democratic Control (UDC), of which he became a member, was that the foreign policy which had led to the war was fundamentally misguided and had been constructed without appeal to popular or even parliamentary opinion. In a UDC pamphlet called War, the Offspring of Fear, he described the war as a 'great race-conflict' between the Teutonic and Slavic peoples, in which Britain's interests lay in supporting the Germans and Austrians rather than the Russians.

In an article called 'The ethics of war' which he published in the new year of 1915, Russell made clear that his objections to the war did not rest on any general pacifism. He did not think war was always wrong. Indeed, the position he took justifies a surprising amount of bloodshed. His general principle was that, if a war furthered civilization, it was justifiable, but otherwise not. Thus wars of colonization and wars of principle (in defence of, for example, democracy) were generally justifiable, and wars of self-defence sometimes so (when, for example, they were fought against inferior civilizations), but wars of prestige—of which the war against Germany was an example—were hardly ever justifiable. If attacked by a civilized country, Russell suggested, the best response would be one of non-resistance, since defeat in such a war would hurt only one's pride, and would not threaten one's civilization.

Shortly after writing this article Russell conceived the ambitious idea of writing a large, two-volume work on the history, principles, and practice of foreign policy, the first volume of which would be a study of how the Liberal government elected in 1906 had betrayed its supporters through its construction of a policy designed to lead to war with Germany, while the second volume would contain a more general account of European history since 1870, pointing to the need for some kind of international reform of diplomatic relations. In pursuing this project Russell enlisted the help of Irene Cooper-Willis, with whom he shared a curiously tepid flirtation which was brought to an end when she rebuffed his advances. After this he lost interest in the project and the proposed two-volume work never appeared, though some of the material gathered for it was used in a booklet called The Policy of the Entente, 1904–1914 that Russell published at the end of 1915.

Russell, like most people at the time, expected that the war would be over in a few months. When this did not happen and the war dragged on, its horror escalating at every turn, Russell's concerns shifted from the analysis of foreign policy to the more fundamental question of how Western civilization might be rebuilt after the war had all but destroyed it. To concentrate on this question Russell took two terms' leave from his academic duties at Cambridge. After meeting D. H. Lawrence and being impressed by his psychological insight, he decided to spend the bulk of this time on a joint project with Lawrence in which the two of them would think through anew the nature and function of all social and political institutions—the state, marriage, morality, property, and so on—with the aim of laying the foundations for a happier and more peaceful world. These ideas they would deliver in a series of public lectures from which, they hoped, would arise an exciting new social movement. When, however, Russell showed Lawrence the synopsis of the lectures he intended to deliver, the two discovered that they had been at cross purposes and there followed an acrimonious falling-out, with Russell accusing Lawrence of having no mind and Lawrence accusing Russell of having nothing but a mind. Russell went ahead with his lectures, which were a great success and were published as Principles of Social Reconstruction (1916), a book Russell continued throughout his life to regard as the 'least unsatisfactory' expression of his 'own personal religion'.

In January 1916 the British government, fearing that the war would be lost through lack of available men, passed the Military Service Bill, which introduced compulsory conscription for all single men aged between eighteen and forty-one. Russell reacted to this with outraged horror and he threw himself with great passion into the campaigns led by the No-Conscription Fellowship to defend the rights of conscientious objectors. In May 1916 Russell's leave of absence from Trinity ended and he resumed his lectures. Within a few weeks, however, he was summoned to court to be charged with impeding recruiting and discipline on account of a leaflet he had written in support of the No-Conscription Fellowship. He was found guilty and fined £100, as a result of which he was sacked from his lectureship.

Now without an academic position, Russell during the following year continued to give public lectures, outlining his increasingly radical political stance. In Political Ideals in 1917 he announced himself a supporter of the guild socialist movement, and when the Russian Revolution broke out he greeted it with unrestrained enthusiasm. In June 1917 Russell spoke at a conference of revolutionary sympathizers in Leeds and supported its resolution calling for the establishment throughout Britain of Soviet-style workers' councils. In the following month, however, he was shocked at the violence he witnessed at a meeting in London, where the attempt to elect such a workers' council led to a riot, after which Russell decided to retire from politics and return to philosophy.

In autumn and winter 1917–18 Russell gave two sets of public lectures on philosophy, the first on mathematical logic and the second on the 'philosophy of logical atomism', both of which showed a determination to return to the issues he had abandoned under the impact of Wittgenstein's criticisms in 1913. 'The chief thesis I have to maintain', Russell announced in these lectures, 'is the legitimacy of analysis' (Lectures on Logical Atomism, 49). The kind of analysis he had in mind is one which seeks to understand the forms of facts, such forms being understood as very general and abstract features of the objective world.

During a rare break from philosophical thinking and writing during this period Russell wrote an article for The Tribune in which he alleged that American troops would be employed in Britain to break up strikes. It was a foolish and unfounded suggestion, for which Russell was again taken to court, this time charged with prejudicing Britain's relations with its ally, an offence for which he received a six-month prison sentence. While in prison Russell worked his lectures on mathematical logic into a book called Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy, which was intended to serve as a popular introduction to the system of Principia mathematica. He also began a study of behaviouristic psychology which was to influence much of the work that he produced after the war, most notably his book The Analysis of Mind (1921).

Second marriage

On Russell's release from prison in September 1918 (just two months before the end of the war), his life, both professionally and personally, was in an unsettled state. During the war, after Helen Dudley had returned to America, his relations with Ottoline had come to an end and several affairs—including one especially tangled one with T. S. Eliot's wife, Vivien (1888–1947), a writer—had come to nothing, he fell deeply in love with the actress and peace campaigner Lady Constance Mary Malleson (1895–1975), to whom he always referred by her stage name, Colette O'Niel. He found Colette's commitment to sexual freedom, however, unbearable, and was thrown into fits of jealous rage whenever she was—or he imagined her to be—with another man.

Seeking refuge from this emotional turmoil, Russell moved into Garsington, the country home of Ottoline Morrell, with whom he remained friends even after they had ceased to be lovers; there, for a few months, he concentrated on philosophy. During this time he prepared a set of lectures that became The Analysis of Mind, and wrote a long paper for the Aristotelian Society called 'On propositions', in which he rejected his earlier theory of judgment in favour of a causal theory of meaning that seeks to understand the nature of propositions through an analysis of the events in the world and in our minds that cause them and are caused by them.

These ideas were elaborated in Russell's series of eight lectures on the analysis of mind in the early summer of 1919, and expanded still further in The Analysis of Mind, which was published two years later. Underpinning Russell's causal theory of meaning was a metaphysic that he (following William James) called 'neutral monism', which asserts that the basic ‘stuff’ from which the world is constructed is neither mental nor physical but something neutral between the two. According to this view ‘mental’ events such as perceptions, thoughts, and beliefs are spatially located inside our heads and are caused by ‘physical’ events taking place in world, the apparent difference in kind between the two being an illusion. In later years Russell abandoned neutral monism, in favour of a curious combination of physicalism and solipsism (a mixture of Berkeley and modern physics, he liked to say), according to which, as he put it in My Philosophical Development (1959): 'we can witness or observe what goes on in our heads and … we cannot witness or observe anything else at all' (Russell, Philosophical Development, 26).

At the time of giving these lectures Russell found a new lover: Dora Black (1894–1986) [see Russell, Dora Winifred], a 25-year-old Cambridge graduate with left-wing political opinions and a forthright disregard for conventional morality. When his lectures were finished in June, he took a three-month holiday in Dorset, during which he was joined at various (and sometimes overlapping) occasions by both Colette and Dora. In November he received an invitation from Trinity to be reinstated as a lecturer; after his experiences of public lectures and freelance writing, however, he was unsure whether he could bear to return to academic life.

At the end of 1919 Russell, accompanied by Dora, travelled to The Hague to meet Wittgenstein in order to go through the text of Tractatus logico-philosophicus, Wittgenstein having sent a copy of the manuscript to Russell in the summer. The meeting proved an important turning point in Russell's life since he became persuaded by Wittgenstein to adopt a linguistic view of logic that undermined not only the view of his early work on the philosophy of mathematics, but also the view he had been expounding in his lectures since 1917. Logic, Russell was now convinced (and remained so for the rest of his life), is concerned not with objectively existing forms, but only with symbols. To understand a logical proposition is not to grasp an abstract truth, but rather merely to understand the meanings of words. On accepting this view, Russell considered his 'retreat from Pythagoras' to be complete, and the moral he drew from it is that neither logic nor mathematics (since he continued to believe that mathematics was logic) had the philosophical significance he had previously ascribed to them.

In spring 1920 Russell visited Russia as part of a trade delegation. What he hoped to find there was a socialist state that could serve as a model for the West, but, to his great disillusionment, what he found instead was a cruel and despotic régime. The visit left him with a deep and abiding loathing for Soviet communism which he expressed in The Practice and Theory of Bolshevism (1921), a brave and penetrating analysis of the situation in Russia that, Russell knew, would be welcomed by his political opponents and hated by his political friends.

Waiting for Russell on his return from Russia was an invitation to spend a year in China as a visiting lecturer at the University of Peking. Russell at once accepted, and wrote to Trinity asking for a year's leave of absence before his resuming his lectureship there. In fact, he never did resume his Trinity post, since, while he and Dora were in China together, Russell wrote resigning his lectureship. Shortly afterwards, to Russell's unfettered delight, Dora became pregnant. As soon as they returned home in summer 1921 Russell obtained a divorce from Alys and married Dora, on 27 September 1921, just in time to secure the legitimacy of his son, John Conrad, who was born in November.

With his second marriage and the birth of his son, Russell's life entered a new phase. In order to provide for his family (a daughter, Katherine, was added in 1923), Russell produced a staggering amount of journalism, published a series of pot-boiling books, and underwent several gruelling lecture tours of the United States. In the process the quality of his writing inevitably suffered and, to the dismay of those who admired his early work in philosophy, he frequently published views on subjects about which he knew very little and opinions which were hasty, ill-considered, and contradictory.

Russell was aware of this falling-off of standards but, for a while, he did not mind it, so long as the commissions for his work kept arriving, which they rarely failed to do. Not that he wrote entirely for money. He was also concerned to influence public opinion. He and Dora saw themselves as leaders of a progressive socialist movement that was stridently anti-clerical, openly defiant of conventional sexual morality, and dedicated to the reform of education. They did not just write about these things: they also sought to influence policy through political participation. In 1922 and 1923 Russell stood for parliament as a Labour candidate for Chelsea, and the following year Dora did likewise. They were also active in many political campaigns, including those for women's rights and for birth control. However, in the pursuit of these aims, Russell often blinded himself to how second-rate his work on political themes actually was.

The lectures and journalism Russell and Dora wrote while in China and soon afterwards formed a jointly published book, The Prospects of Industrial Civilization (1922), which presents a view that Russell repeated many times in many places afterwards, namely that the establishment of international socialism is necessary to save civilization from destroying itself through war. The same message also underlies The Problem of China, published in the same year, in which Russell collected the various articles he had published expressing his love of the Chinese people and his desire to see the more industrially advanced countries learning from them rather than destroying them. In 1923 Russell's gift for the lucid explanation of technical ideas was put to good use in The ABC of Atoms, which he followed two years later with the more popular The ABC of Relativity.

Still more popular were On Education (1926), Marriage and Morals (1929), and The Conquest of Happiness (1930), all of which enjoyed a wide sale and helped to establish Russell in the eyes of the general public as a philosopher with important things to say about the moral, political, and social issues of the day. Meanwhile, his public lecture 'Why I am not a Christian', delivered in 1926 and reprinted many times, became a locus classicus of atheistic rationalism.

In the midst of all this Russell managed for short periods to dedicate himself to technical philosophy, but the results—the second edition of Principia mathematica in 1925 and The Analysis of Matter in 1927—failed to satisfy many. In the revised edition of Principia Russell introduced a new system of logic, influenced by both Wittgenstein and Frank Ramsey, which, however, was unable to do the job required of it. The Analysis of Matter presents a very sophisticated theory of ‘structural realism’, the fundamental ideas of which were decisively refuted in a devastating critique written by the mathematician M. A. Newman.

In 1927 Russell and Dora set up their own school, Beacon Hill, as a pioneering experiment in primary education, to pay for which Russell undertook several lucrative but exhausting lecture tours of the United States of America. During these years Russell's second marriage came under increasing strain, partly because of overwork but chiefly because Dora chose to have two children with another man, whom she insisted on raising alongside John and Kate. In 1932 Russell left Dora for a young Oxford undergraduate called Patricia Helen (known by her friends and relations as Peter) Spence, and for the next three years his life was dominated by an extraordinarily acrimonious and complicated divorce from Dora, which was finally granted in 1935.

Return to philosophy

In the following year, on 18 January 1936, Russell married Peter, who was the daughter of Harry Evelyn Spence. In 1937 they had a son, Conrad [see Russell, Conrad Sebastian Robert, fifth Earl Russell]. By this time his faith in many of the ideals that he and Dora had championed together had been severely weakened and he no longer felt able to speak with dogmatic certainty about education, marriage, morals, and the pursuit of happiness. Worn out by years of frenetic public activity and tired of writing pot-boilers, he longed to return to serious intellectual work. For a while he considered becoming a full-time (though non-academic) historian, but after the lukewarm reception given to Freedom and Organization (1934), his study of European history from 1814 to 1914, he abandoned the idea. In 1936 he published Which Way to Peace?, a plea for Britain to avoid war with Germany, which argued that the best way of dealing with the Nazi threat would be to pursue a policy of complete non-resistance. Understandably, Russell later became embarrassed by this book and never allowed it to be reprinted.

On the death of his brother Frank in 1931, Russell inherited the family earldom, and in 1937 he paid homage to his parents by editing, together with his third wife, The Amberley Papers, a two-volume collection of unremarkable, and surprisingly dull, family correspondence. Though he was encouraged by, among others, Beatrice Webb to use his title to promote the Labour cause in the House of Lords, he chose not to, preferring instead to abandon politics altogether in favour of a return to academic philosophy.

In 1935 Russell wrote 'On order in time', a formidably technical paper that demonstrated that, at the age of sixty-two and with a long break from academic life, he had not lost the ability to wrestle with abstruse and abstract issues. In the following year he published 'The limits of empiricism', which showed him for the first time in years engaging with the work of contemporary philosophers, in particular the work inspired by the later Wittgenstein. On the basis of these and other publications (including a revised edition of The Principles of Mathematics, published in 1937), Russell felt able, despite his advanced years, to apply for academic posts in philosophy. After being rebuffed by Princeton and Cambridge, he was invited in 1937 to give a series of lectures at Oxford called 'Words and facts'. Though this did not, as he had hoped, lead to the offer of a permanent post, it helped to bring him back into academic circles, and for the year 1937–8 he was elected president of the Aristotelian Society, delivering as his presidential address a paper called 'On verification'. In this, as in a paper delivered to the Aristotelian Society in the summer of 1938 called 'The relevance of psychology to logic', Russell defended the thesis that all knowledge has, as its foundation, 'basic propositions'; that is, propositions that are derived, not from other propositions but from direct experience. These propositions, Russell argued, cannot be shown to be true, but it is nevertheless, psychologically, impossible to doubt them.

By the time he delivered the second of these papers, Russell had at last succeeded in securing an academic appointment, albeit a temporary one: a one-year visiting professorship at the University of Chicago, starting in autumn 1938. Russell hoped that it would be renewed but, despite the success of his seminars, which were attended by many notable philosophers, including Rudolf Carnap, Russell was obliged in 1939, at the age of sixty-seven, to seek work elsewhere. This time he found a three-year appointment at the University of California, Los Angeles, but within a few months of taking up this position he was applying for other jobs, dissatisfied with both the standard of his students and the autocracy of the university's management. He hoped to find something on the east coast, and was much gratified when, in 1940, he was invited to deliver the prestigious William James lectures at Harvard, lectures which were published as An Inquiry into Meaning and Truth. In the same year he was offered and accepted a professorship at the College of the City of New York, but in a much publicized case he was prevented from taking this up because of objections to the views on sex and marriage that he had published in the 1920s. He was then saved from financial ruin by securing a position teaching the history of philosophy at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia. Though he soon fell out with the notoriously difficult Dr Barnes and was sacked, Russell was able to turn these lectures into History of Western Philosophy, which proved to be a best-seller and was for many years the main source of his income.

Post-war political activism

Russell's life in the United States during the Second World War was extraordinarily difficult, not only because he was unable to find an employer with whom he got on well, but also because his third marriage deteriorated into bitter acrimony. Partly under the strain of the public controversies in which Russell became embroiled and the consequent threat of financial ruin, and partly also because of what she perceived as his coldness towards her, Peter developed a ferocious hatred of Russell and became increasingly bad-tempered with both him and his children John and Kate, who had come to live with their father at the outbreak of war. By 1943 family life had become all but unendurable.

In the midst of this gloom Russell, to his great delight, received an invitation to return to Cambridge to take up a five-year fellowship at Trinity College, beginning in autumn 1944. This allowed him to write what became his last major contribution to philosophy, Human Knowledge: its Scope and Application, published in 1949, in which he developed at length his view that certainty in human knowledge was impossible and that the best to be hoped for was the probable truth afforded us by what he called 'postulates of scientific inference'. At Cambridge during this time Russell was dismayed to discover how far he had fallen out of favour among the younger generation of British philosophers, for whom Wittgenstein was now the greatest influence. To his great chagrin, Human Knowledge was reviewed without any great respect. In the 1950s Russell hit back with a series of polemical attacks on 'Oxford ordinary language philosophy', but these served only to widen the gulf between him and the leading philosophers of the day.

Once again the pendulum between politics and philosophy swung the other way and Russell devoted most of his last years to political campaigning, For a short period between 1945 and 1950 he, for once in his life, found himself in favour with the authorities, and he received many official tributes, including membership of the Order of Merit in 1949 and the Nobel prize for literature in 1950. During this period his political views were belligerently anti-communist, and on several occasions he urged upon the Western powers a policy of threatening Russia with atomic bombardment if they resisted the call to submit to international authority. So embarrassed did he later become by this advice that he later denied having made it, despite the public record to the contrary.

In 1949 Peter finally left Russell, taking their young son Conrad with her. From 1950 to 1953 Russell shared a house in Richmond with his son John, who, by this time, had a wife and three children. During these years Russell led a quiet life, and, forsaking both philosophy and politics, dedicated himself to literary writing, first his autobiography and then two collections of short stories, Satan in the Suburbs (1953) and Nightmares of Eminent Persons (1954). His autobiography—or, at any rate, its first volume—is widely, and justly, considered a masterpiece, but not so his short stories, which have been generally greeted, even by his admirers, with an uncomfortable and puzzled silence. Extracts from the autobiography were broadcast as radio talks and published as Portraits from Memory in 1956, and three years later Russell published a separate intellectual autobiography, My Philosophical Development, which provides a fascinating account of his 'retreat from Pythagoras' and the impact Wittgenstein made on his philosophical career.

Family life in Richmond, which had been fairly happy for the first years or so, came to an abrupt end in 1953 when John and his wife Susan walked out of the house, never to return. In the previous year, on 15 December 1952, Russell had married, as his fourth wife, Edith (d. 1978), daughter of Edward Bronson Finch, of New York, and at last found marital happiness, somewhat alloyed by the sudden responsibility of caring for John's three daughters. At the end of 1954 John was diagnosed as schizophrenic, after which Russell had almost nothing to do with him and fought a bitter legal battle with Dora—horribly reminiscent for all concerned of their divorce battles of the 1930s—to keep control of the three girls. In 1956 he moved to north Wales, taking the girls with him, hoping to provide for them the kind of stable family life that John had been so manifestly unable to provide. He was unable, however, to prevent a series of heartbreaking tragedies: John never regained his mind, Susan became insane and spent most of the rest of her life in psychiatric care, and, of the three granddaughters, one committed suicide, one became schizophrenic, and the third left England for New Mexico, hoping to leave all traces of her Russell background behind.

The abrupt end of the Richmond household coincided with a dramatic re-entry into public life, heralded by Russell's powerful 1954 radio broadcast, 'Man's peril', in which he argued that the Bikini H-bomb tests illustrated the need for war itself to be abolished. This led the following year to the ‘EinsteinRussell manifesto’, which called upon scientists throughout the world to testify to the futility of attempting to ‘win’ a nuclear war. The Pugwash movement (called after the place of its first conference) of scientists which attempted to carry out this manifesto elected Russell as its president, but after a few years he began to think more direct action was necessary to avert global catastrophe, and in 1958 he became one of the founders of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, backing its calls for British neutrality in Common Sense and Nuclear Warfare (1959).

In 1960 Russell became convinced by the American radical Ralph Schoenman that mass civil disobedience was required to change the British government's policy on nuclear weapons, and together they formed the Committee of 100, which organized well-publicized mass campaigns of illegal protest activities designed to have as many people imprisoned as possible. One of those imprisoned was Russell himself, who in September 1961, at eighty-nine, was sentenced to two months (later shortened to a week) in Brixton gaol. The sight of the frail but defiant and distinguished philosopher being sent to prison was a major propaganda coup for the anti-nuclear movement, and throughout the 1960s the image of Russell—impossibly old, white-haired, small, and bony, his jaw jutting out in implacable defiance—became a familiar and popular icon of political protest.

In the following year Russell, aided by Schoenman, made an attempt to intervene personally in the Cuban missile crisis by sending urgent telegrams to all the world leaders involved. In Unarmed Victory (1963) the (surely false) impression is given that these telegrams played some role in the ending of the crisis and, encouraged by Schoenman, Russell began to imagine himself as a force to be reckoned with in international politics, a fantasy which fuelled the creation in 1963 of the Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation. The credibility of this latter foundation as a peacemaking organization was undermined by the intemperate and belligerent nature of its statements. In these, using the language and the slogans of Trotskyist revolutionaries, Russell announced his support for Che Guevara's call for a series of guerrilla wars in order to defeat ‘US imperialism’. The international war crimes tribunal organized by the foundation in 1967 was similarly compromised, as was Russell's last book, War Crimes in Vietnam, a series of articles that it is practically impossible to believe were written by Russell himself.

In 1969 Russell finally broke with Schoenman, but he was by that time very frail, and on 2 February 1970, a few months before his ninety-eighth birthday, he died of acute bronchitis at his home, Plas Penrhyn, Penrhyndeudraeth, Merioneth.

Historical significance

When he died Russell was better known as an anti-war campaigner than as a philosopher of mathematics. At this distance, however, it is possible to see that it is principally for his great contributions to philosophy that he will be remembered and honoured by future generations. In some respects, as Russell himself often lamented, his philosophical work was a failure. He failed to find what he had set out to find—a solid basis for certain, indubitable knowledge—and he failed, too, to demonstrate that mathematics was but a branch of logic. However, in searching for these things he left a legacy that has profoundly influenced the way in which philosophy is pursued, particularly in the English-speaking countries.

In its use of techniques borrowed from mathematical logic, its concern to identify the ‘logical form’ of linguistic expressions hidden by ‘surface’ grammatical structures, and its conception of itself as a quasi-technical discipline analogous to scientific enquiry, analytic philosophy at the close of the twentieth century probably owes more to Russell than to any other twentieth-century philosopher. The Cambridge philosopher Frank Ramsey summed up the attitude to Russell's chief contribution to philosophy that has remained prevalent in the profession when he described the theory of descriptions as a paradigm of philosophy.

Far less enduring have been Russell's contributions to epistemology. The 'neutral monism' espoused in The Analysis of Mind still enjoys some support among contemporary philosophers of mind, but the notion that the external world is a 'construction' out of sense-data and the claim that all the objects of our knowledge are literally 'inside our heads' have largely fallen out of favour.

Some of Russell's popular works, in particular On Education, Marriage and Morals, and The Conquest of Happiness, continue to sell well, as do The Problems of Philosophy and History of Western Philosophy, but most of his writings on political themes are now out of print and are likely to remain so. The Principles of Mathematics and 'On denoting', however, continue to be studied and debated by successive generations of philosophers, and it is as the author of these that Russell's permanent place in the history of ideas is assured.


  • B. Russell, Autobiography, 1 (1967)
  • B. Russell, Autobiography, 2 (1968)
  • B. Russell, Autobiography, 3 (1969)
  • B. Russell, My philosophical development (1959)
  • B. Russell, Collected papers, 1 (1983)
  • B. Russell, Collected papers, 12 (1985)
  • P. A. Schilpp, The philosophy of Bertrand Russell (1944)
  • R. Monk, Bertrand Russell: the spirit of solitude (1996)
  • R. Monk, Bertrand Russell: the ghost of madness (2000)


  • BL, corresp. with Society of Authors, Add. MS 63323
  • BLPES, diary of visit to Berlin
  • McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario, William Ready division of archives and research collections, corresp. and papers
  • Wellcome L., papers relating to Family Planning Association
  • BL, corresp. with Marie Stopes, Add. MS 53556
  • Bodl. Oxf., corresp. with Gilbert Murray
  • Bodl. Oxf., letters to Lord Ponsonby
  • CAC Cam., corresp. with Lord Gladwyn
  • CUL, letters to G. E. Moore
  • Cumbria AS, Carlisle, letters to Catherine Marshall and papers relating to No Conscription Fellowship
  • Harvard U., Houghton L., letters to R. C. Marsh
  • JRL, letters to the Manchester Guardian
  • King's AC Cam., letters to J. M. Keynes
  • Labour History Archive and Study Centre, Manchester, corresp. with R. Palme Dutt
  • McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario, William Ready division of archives and research collections, letters to Constance Malleson
  • Norfolk RO, corresp. with H. W. Massingham
  • Rice University, Houston, Texas, Woodson Research Center, corresp. with Sir Julian Huxley
  • U. Newcastle, Robinson L., corresp. with C. P. Trevelyan


  • BFINA, ‘Reputations’ (2 parts), BBC2, May 1997
  • BFINA, current affairs footage
  • BFINA, ‘Wise Elders’, 1953; ‘Reputations’, BBC1, 28 May 1997, BBC 2, 4 June 1997; current affairs footage; documentary footage; news footage; recorded lectures


  • BL NSA, ‘Speaking personally’, 11 April 1961, T7786/01
  • BL NSA, ‘Three passions of Bertrand Russell’, BBC, 16 March 1967, M1269WC1
  • BL NSA, ‘Bertrand Russell’, BBC Radio 4, 4 April 1970, T3645WC1
  • BL NSA, ‘Passionate involvement: Bertrand Russell and the 20th century’, BBC Radio 4, 14 April 1970, NP1500W, P501WC1
  • BL NSA, ‘Bertrand Russell: a reassessment’, BBC Radio 4, 3 June 1981, T2790W
  • BL NSA, ‘Bertrand Russell’, 4 Nov 1992, C125/226 BD2
  • BL NSA, documentary recordings
  • BL NSA, oral history interviews
  • BL NSA, recorded lectures [Reith lectures]
  • BL NSA, recorded talk


  • R. Fry, oils, 1925, NPG
  • E. L. Edwards, bust, 1953
  • J. Epstein, bust, 1953
  • I. Kar, photograph, 1953, NPG [see illus.]
  • P. Halsman, photograph, 1958, NPG; repro. in R. W. Clark, The life of Bertrand Russell (1975)
  • L. Bassingthwaighte, oils, 1969
  • D. Griffiths, oils, 1969
  • M. Quinton, bust, 1980, Red Lion Square, London
  • W. Rothenstein, drawing, repro. in K. Matthews, British philosophers (1943)

Wealth at Death

£69,243: probate, 23 Oct 1970, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

J. Burke, A general [later edns A genealogical] and heraldic dictionary of the peerage and baronetage of the United Kingdom [later edns the British empire] (1829–)