Golden Recursion Inc. logoGolden Recursion Inc. logo
Advanced Search
Bertrand Russell

Bertrand Russell

Bertrand Russell was a logician, one of the first analytic philosophers, and a political activist.

Bertrand Arthur Russell, the Third Earl Russell of Kingston Russell, and Viscount of Amberley of Amberley and of Ardsalla, was a British philosopher and polymath. His academic work included work in philosophy, mathematics, and logic. His work had influence on mathematics, logic, set theory, linguistics, artificial intelligence, cognitive science, computer sciences, and various areas of analytical philosophy. In the areas of analytical philosophy, his work was especially influential in a philosophy of mathematics, philosophy of language, epistemology, and metaphysics. In later life, Bertrand Russell also became a public intellectual, historian, social critic, political activist, and Nobel laureate.

Early life

Bertrand Russell was born in Ravenscroft, the country home of his parents, Lord and Lady Amberley. Lord John Russell, Bertrand Russell's grandfather, was the youngest son of the 6th Duke of Bedford, who was ennobled by Queen Victoria in 1861, after a distinguished career that included serving as prime minister twice and becoming the First Earl of Russell. Bertrand Russell would become the 3rd Earl of Russell when his elder brother, Frank, died childless in 1931.

A young Bertrand Russell.

By the time Russell was age six, his sister Rachel, his parents, and his grandfather had all died. Bertrand Russell and his brother Frank were left in the care of their grandmother, Countess Russell. Frank was sent to Winchester School, while Bertrand Russell was educated privately at home. This saw his early life, to his later regret, spent largely in isolation from other children. However, during his home schooling, his precocious intelligence came out, with Bertrand Russell absorbed in mathematics from an early age. He would later comment on the experience of learning Euclidean geometry as falling in love, because it introduced him to the possibility of demonstrable knowledge. Further, this led him to his earliest philosophical work, written during his adolescence, which recorded his skeptical doubts about the Christian faith in which his grandmother brought him up.

Bertrand Russell at Trinity College in 1893.

In 1890, the relative isolation of Russell's childhood came to an end as he was awarded a scholarship to attend Trinity College, University of Cambridge, where he studied Mathematical Tripos. While there, he was elected as a member of the secret society Cambridge Apostles in 1892, where he became friends with other members of the intellectual society, which included members in the literary Bloomsbury Group, including his lifelong friends poet Robert Trevelyan and his wife Elizabeth. Russell would describe his change during this time from a "shy prig" to "gay and flippant."

Bertrand Russell would graduate with a B.A. in mathematics in 1893 and added a fellowship in philosophy in 1895. The fellowship was won on the strength of Russell's thesis entitled "An Essay on the Foundations of Geometry." A revised version which would be published in 1897 as his first philosophical work, which presented a sophisticated idealist theory that viewed geometry as a description of the structure of spatial intuition.

First marriage

Russell met Alys Pearsall Smith when he was seventeen. Alys Smith was described as puritanical and high-minded, connected to several educationists and religious activists, and despite his grandmother's wishes he married her in December 1894. The marriage followed a three-month period when Russell was sent as an attaché at the British Embassy in Paris, where Russell's grandmother hoped the distance would end their engagement.

Bertrand Russell's first political work, German Social Democracy, was published in 1896. This came after he and Alys spent part of 1896 visiting Berlin, where he had formulated an ambitious scheme of writing two series of books—one on the philosophy of sciences and the other on social and political questions.

Early Career

From 1895 to 1896, Russell received his first teaching job at the London School of Economics. There he taught German social democracy, which would be the theme of his first book. During this time, Russell became a member of the Coefficients dining club of social reformers established in 1902 by the Fabian campaigners Sidney and Beatrice Webb. In 1903, Russell published The Principles of Mathematics, which is sometimes considered one of his first important works, and which developed and extended the mathematical logic of Peano and Frege, which suggests that mathematics and logic are the same.

Return to Trinity

In 1910, Russell returned to live at Trinity, where he lectured on the principles of mathematics. This was while Bertrand Russell and Alfred North Whitehead were finishing their work Principia Mathematica, which was first published in 1910-1913. The book had three aims, according to the work's introduction:

  1. to analyze to the greatest possible extent the ideas and methods of mathematical logic and to minimize the number of primitive notions, axioms, and inference rules
  2. to precisely express mathematical propositions in symbolic logic using the most convenient notation that precise expression allows
  3. to solve the paradoxes that plagued logic and set theory at the turn of the 20th century

The book, despite its density and complexity, made Bertrand Russell famous in his field. In 1911, while teaching at Trinity, Russell became acquainted with the young Austrian engineering student Ludwig Wittgenstein, whom Russell viewed as a genius and as a successor who could continue his work on logic. Russell would spend hours dealing with Wittgenstein's phobias and bouts of despair, while continuing to be fascinated with Wittgenstein, even as Wittgenstein's thinking began to diverge more from Russell's.

World War I

Like many people of his time, Bertrand Russell's experience, especially as an opponent to the Boer War, would inform his views on and critique of the first World War. He would write in letters around this time, that the declaration of war on August 4, 1914 by Britain, shattered his waning faith in the Liberal Part and the competence of the British ruling class. He would become a vocal critic of British foreign policy, while he began to explore the ethics of war in his published letters, articles, pamphlets, and books. In September of 1914, a month after the declaration of war, he would write:

The business of war, like a ghastly game, is nominally subject to certain arbitrary rules. In the absence of an umpire, each side accuses the other of infractions, which are called "atrocities". The rules are roughly these: A man must only fight if he belongs to a regular arm, and must confine himself, in the main, to fighting people who belong to another regular army, and who are called the "enemy", and he must only kill them so long as they are still fighting; but if a man who is not in a regular army attempts to defend his home, he may be legitimately shot . . . It inevitably happens that each side disregards the rules when there is any military advantage in doing so. Disregard by one's own side is concealed, whilst disregard by the other side is at once reported and magnified. When an army succeeds in inflicting greater losses upon another army than it suffer, there are rejoicing and thanks given to God. But when it kills men not belonging to an army, no one rejoices, and it is not suggested that the Deity has any share in the matter.

A group of conscientious objectors to the first World War, of which Bertrand Russell was one.

Right from the start, Bertrand Russell was active in the No Conscription Fellowship of conscientious objectors. He edited their journal, and tribunals hearing their appeals against conscription usually exempted them only from combatant duties. Any refusal to serve at this point would lead to a court martial. The first prosecutions of conscientious objectors in Britain came in April 1916. Russell's work in conscientious objection led to his dismissal from Trinity College after he was identified as an author of a letter supporting imprisoned objectors, and was convicted and fined £100 under the Defence of the Realm Act.

In 1917, Russell was prosecuted again by the British government and received a prison term of six months. He would be released from prison in September 1918. During his prison time, Russell began work on his Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy which would be published in 1919.

Middle life
Second and third marriage
Lady Ottoline Morrell, longtime lover of Bertrand Russell.

Russell's marriage was reported to have begun falling apart as early as 1901, when he apparently discovered he no longer loved her while out on a bicycle ride. A lengthy period of separation would begin in 1911 with Russell's affair with Lady Ottoline Morrell, and during which period Russell was supposed to have had many, sometimes simultaneous, affairs. The couple would finally divorce in 1921. In the same year, Russell had begun an affair with Dora Black, the woman who would become his second wife. The marriage was, in part, due to Russell's long-standing, and lifelong affair with Lady Constance Malleson, also known as Collette O'Niel, who would not marry or give Russell children due to her dedication to her career. While in Dora, Russell found a willing alternative, and they would marry and have two children, John Conrad and Katharine.

Dora Russell with her two children from Bertrand Russell.

During this period, Russell supported himself writing popular books explaining physics, ethics, and education. In 1920, Russell visited the new communist state of Russia without Dora, who would accompany Russell as he went on to China, where he lectured at the Government University in Beijing for a year. Dora and Russell would return to England in August of 1921. The year prior to teaching in China, Russell had been reinstated at Trinity College, although by the time he returned to England, he had resigned from the position at Trinity. In 1927, along with Dora, Russell founded the experimental Beacon Hill School, which he would leave in 1932, the same year he divorced Dora, after their relationship fell apart due to the strains of the many affairs the two engaged in.

Bertrand Russell with third wife Patricia "Peter" Spence.

At the end of their relationship, Russell went on to marry his third wife, on January 18, 1936. Patricia "Peter" Spence, an Oxford graduate, had previously been the Russell children's governess since 1930. Russell and Peter would have one son, Conrad Sebastian Robert Russell, the 5th Earl Russell. And in 1937, Russell returned to the London School of Economics to lecture on the science of power. And he would teach philosophy at the University of Chicago and UCLA leading up to the outbreak of the Second World War.

Second World War

At the beginning of the rearmament of Britain, with the early signals of the coming war, Russell was opposed to another war, suggesting instead that, in order to avoid war, that the British should treat the Germans like visitors if they invaded England. In 1940, Russell was appointed professor at the City College of New York, but after public outcry at the appointment, a court judgment annulled the appointment, pronouncing Russell morally unfit to teach because of his opinions. The judgment focused on those opinions relating to sexual morality as detailed in his Marriage and Morals from 1929.

However, his views would change as the war progressed, with Russell declaring in 1943 that "war was always a great evil" but in this case it could represent a lesser of two evils. To further the understanding of his position, to allay any misunderstanding, and to expound his growing political views, Russell wrote:

There are causes, but only a very few, for which it is worthwhile to fight; but whatever the cause, and however justifiable the war, war brings about such great evils that it is of immense importance to find ways short of war in which the things worth fighting for can be secured. I think it is worthwhile to fight to prevent England and America being conquered by Nazis, but it would be far better if this end could be secured without war. For this, two things are necessary. First, the creation of an international government, possessing a monopoly of armed force, and guaranteeing freedom from aggression to every country; second, that war (other than civil wars) are justified when, and only when, they are fought in defense of the international law established by the international authority. Wars will cease when, and only when, it becomes evident beyond reasonable doubt that in any way the aggressor will be defeated.

In 1944, after joining the Barnes Foundation, where he lectured to varied audiences on the history of philosophy—lectures that would form the basis of A History of Western Philosophy—Russell would return to England and rejoin the faculty of Trinity College.

Following the conclusion of the Second World War, and with the dropping of the nuclear bombs in Japan, Russell began to argue that, if the USSR's aggression continued, it would make more sense to go to war with the country before it achieved nuclear proficiency. This was, according to Russell's logic, because if the USSR had no nuclear weapons, a victory against them could come swiftly and with fewer casualties than if both sides had nuclear bombs. Many at the time misunderstood Russell's view as espousing a first strike in a war with the USSR, while other since have argued that he was explaining the usefulness of America's nuclear arsenal to deter the USSR from continuing its domination of Eastern Europe.

Later life
First edition of Bertrand Russell's A History of Western Philosophy.

With the publication of A History of Western Philosophy, Russell became a best-selling author, and sales of the book would offer him a steady income for the remainder of his life. Russell in later life would be invited, in 1948, to deliver the inaugural Reith Lectures where his series of six broadcasts, titled Authority and the Individual, explored themes such as the individual in the development of community and state control in a progressive society.

In 1949, in the King's Birthday Honours, Russell was awarded the Order of Merit, and the following year he was awarded the Nobel Prize of Literature. In 1952, Russell's third marriage, to Spence, fell apart and the two divorced. He went on to marry his fourth wife, long-standing American friend Edith Finch, and this would be the last marriage of his life.

Bertrand Russell with his fourth wife and longtime friend Edith Finch.

Through the 1950s and 1960s, Russell was engaged in various political causes, as a public intellectual. This included advocating for nuclear disarmament, opposition to the Vietnam War, and opposition to Israeli aggression in the Middle East. These political leanings made Russell popular with many of the youthful members of the New Left of the time. From 1967 to 1969, Russell published this three-volume autobiography. On February 2, 1970, at age 97, Russell fell suddenly ill and would die of influenza.

Critical reception and remembrance

Bertrand Russell is largely remembered due to his work A History of Western Philosophy. And as such, he is remembered largely as a philosopher, despite the heavy influence of mathematics on his thinking, and the work he did in mathematics.

For example, along with G.E. Moore, a friend and Cambridge philosopher, Russell would become one of the founders of analytic philosophy. This movement was inspired by the idea that many concepts of ordinary language are vague, and that to make these concepts more precise would allow for the ability to establish which ideas are true and which are false. This was a concept that he would equally apply to mathematics in his works The Principles of Mathematics (1903) and Principia Mathematica (1910-1913). He would later write in his autobiography that his intellectual pursuits, especially these pursuits for clarity and precision in common concepts in mathematics and language was motivated by his desire for certainty. He would write:

I wanted certainty in the kind of way people want religious faith. I thought that certainty is more likely to be found in mathematics than elsewhere.
Two Russells

However, in many philosophical circles, there exists the belief in two figures of Bertrand Russell. The first was the short-lived analytical philosopher of 1897-1913. This captured many of his groundbreaking works on logic, which would shape the analytic tradition that dominated Anglo-American philosophy during the 20th century. The second Bertrand Russell is the public intellectual and political campaigner of 1914-1970, known to a wider audiences for his popular books including Why I Am Not a Christian, Marriage and Morals, and A History of Western Philosophy.

This view of Bertrand Russell was expressed in Ray Monk's exhaustive biography of Bertrand Russell, in which the first volume, which was well acclaimed, went from Bertrand's birth to 1921. And then the second volume, which extended from 1922 to 1970, would become condemned as a hatchet-job on Bertrand Russell's later life. Monk would later express his view, in which Russell abandoned his serious subjects in favor of subjects that, according to Monk, had little of any value to contribute. This view has since become orthodoxy among professional philosophers.

However, another view has emerged as some have suggested that Russell, rather than abandoning his apparently "important" work, he had seen the limitations of "technical philosophy." This is in part supported by the publication of Gödel’s incompleteness theorem in 1931, which has been credited with burying logicism. While Wittgenstein was supposed to have spotted flaws in Russell's work before this time as well. And those supporting this latter view also point to the enormous influence of Russell's later work, which is still considered of high quality. This work introduced many people to the problems in philosophy, the history of philosophy, and popular ethical problems.


Bertrand Russell, in philosophy, has been, as noted above, for being a founder of analytic philosophy, and several of its branches. His work also influenced modern mathematical logic, and his work on the importance of language in terms of how people can understand the world was central to his philosophy, with some suggesting that other thinkers who would follow this such as Ludwig Wittgenstein, Gilbert Ryle, J.L. Austin, and P.F. Strawson, would not have necessarily been on the same philosophical path without Russell's work.

However, his "popular" philosophical work looked to make philosophy a part of everyone's everyday life. In this, he saw a search for truth as needing both hard science and pure speculation, with some of his work contrasting the works of philosopher David Hume with poet William Blake, two individuals with ideas diametrically opposed to each other. However, for Russell, his work would suggest that certainty stifles progress, and an inability to take imaginative risks consigns people to inaction. And, when writing on the importance of philosophy, especially in light of a world where mathematics and science seemed to be better suited at answering the questions of how the world worked, questions philosophy through its history seemed to fail to answer adequately, would write, on the value of philosophy:

Philosophy is to be studied, not for the sake of any definite answers to its questions, since no definite answers can, as a rule, be known to be true, but rather for the sake of the questions themselves; because these questions enlarge our conception of what is possible, enrich our intellectual imagination, and diminish the dogmatic assurance which closes the mind against speculation; but above all because, through the greatness of the universe which philosophy contemplates, the mind also is rendered great, and becomes capable of that union with the universe which constitutes its highest good.

The first full exposition of Russell's ethical views came in his essay "The Elements of Ethics" in 1910. This essay offered a view of ethics, known as cognitivist, similar to that expounded by G. E. Moore in his Principia Ethica. The cognitivist view of ethics suggests that an ethical statement, such as "X is good" can express a proposition that has truth-value, or that can be found to either be true or false, independent of opinions and emotions. However, this thinking did not last long, with some suggesting Russell's thinking may have changed as early as 1913, but an exposition of his new view, ethical non-cognitivism, which denies ethical statements have truth-value, were found in Religion and Science published in 1935.

The following year, 1936, would see one of the most famous expositions of ethical non-cognitivism published (A.J. Ayer's Language, Truth and Logic). Two aspects of Russell's ethical ideas expressed in 1935 were (1) ethical statements are not fact-stating, though they seem to be so when expressed in "indicative" mood, and (2) they are "optative" or desire-expressing. Russell's ethical views would continue to change, with his final view expressed in 1954 in Human Society in Ethics and Politics, which is considered by some to be his most important ethical writing. In this work, he would adopt David Hume's maxim "reason is, and ought, only to be the slave of the passions."

Religion and theology

Some consider Russell's personal courage in facing controversies were informed by his religious upbringing, with his grandmother who was said to have instructed him with Exodus 23:2 "Thou shalt not follow a multitude to do evil," which he would say influenced him. However, for most of his adult life, Russell considered religion little more than superstition. Further, his views on religion and theology would suggest that they do more to impede knowledge, and foster fear and dependency, and were the basis of many crimes committed, especially those against women.

Russell would later describe himself as an agnostic, saying,

Therefore, in regard to the Olympic gods, speaking to a purely philosophical audience, I would say that I am an Agnostic. But speaking popularly, I think that all of us would say in regard to those gods that we were Atheists. In regard to the Christian God, I should, I think, take exactly the same line.

Russell was the author of more than sixty books and over two thousand articles. He additionally wrote many pamphlets, introductions, and letters to the editor. His works are found in anthologies and collections, and his previously unpublished works have been included in other volumes.

Selected bibliography

Date published

A Critical Exposition of the Philosophy of Leibniz


Cambridge University Press

A Free man's worship, and other essays


A History of Western Philosophy and its Connection with Political and Social Circumstances from the Earliest Times to the Present Day


Simon and Schuster

An Essay on the Foundations of Geometry


Cambridge University Press

An Inquiry into Meaning and Truth


W. W. Norton & Company



February 2, 1970
Bertrand Russell dies of influenza, just after 8 pm in Penrhyndeudraeth.
May 18, 1872
Bertrand Russell was born in Trelleck.


Further Resources


'I Tried to Stop the Bloody Thing' - The American Scholar


March 2, 2011

"I am so full of happiness in the thought of you and of our love" | Dear Bertie


Bertrand Russell - Face to Face Interview (BBC, 1959)



Bertrand Russell - Global Governance Forum



Hedda Hassel Mørch
February 27, 2020
The nature of consciousness seems to be unique among scientific puzzles. Not only do neuroscientists have no fundamental explanation...By Hedda Hassel Mørch
Hedda Hassel Mørch
February 27, 2020
The nature of consciousness seems to be unique among scientific puzzles. Not only do neuroscientists have no fundamental explanation...By Hedda Hassel Mørch
Brian Gallagher
January 2, 2020
The Simple Dutch Cure for StressJohn Loo / FlickrSince reading this November post, by Alice Fleerackers, I haven't been able to...By Brian Gallagher
Anna Ivanova
Invalid Date
Can you imagine a mind without language? More specifically, can you imagine your mind without language? Can you think, plan, or relate...By Anna Ivanova
Leon Horsten
Invalid Date
Suppose you open your handbag one day expecting to find your wallet there, but don't. Do you literally see the absence of your wallet...By Leon Horsten


Golden logo
By using this site, you agree to our Terms & Conditions.