According to Oxford philosopher A.J Ayer, “The popular conception of a philosopher as one who combines universal learning with the direction of human conduct was more nearly satisfied by Bertrand Russell than by any other philosopher of our time.” Such was how profoundly philosophers around the world revere British philosopher, mathematician, logistician and political activist, Bertrand Russell. Together with G.E. Moore, Russell was able to establish modern analytic philosophy. For a man that is regarded as one of the greatest philosophers of the twentieth century, Russell was rather too controversial. He was clouded with so many controversies that he was imprisoned twice for his frequent altercations with the British government. His extreme liberal views also got him declared morally unfit by the City College of New York’s governing council after he was earlier appointed a professor of philosophy at the school. Russell’s 98 years on earth were highlighted by his extensive inputs in various philosophical and non-philosophical subjects especially those related to science and humanity.
Who then was Bertrand Russell?
Bertrand Arthur William Russell was born on May 18, 1972 to one of the most prominent aristocratic families in the United Kingdom. His father was Viscount Amberley, and his mother was Katherine, the daughter of the 2nd Baron Stanley of Alderley. Though he was born in Trellech, Monmouthshire, the most parts of his childhood were spent under the guardian of his grandparents, after he lost both of his parents within four years of his birth. His grandfather John Russell who served twice as the Prime Minister of Great Britain passed away in 1878, leaving him under the care of his grandmother. As a means of avoiding Russell’s father wish for him to brought up as an agnostic, his grandmother employed governesses and tutors to teach him in her court rather than allowing him to attend school.
Russell’s later years saw him graduate with a first-class B.A. in Mathematics from Trinity College, Cambridge. His encounter with Alfred North Whitehead influenced his decision to join the Cambridge Apostles (a famous secret society whose members included top renowned philosophers). This single decision affected him for the rest of his life, as he fell in love with philosophy. His popularity began after his essay on the foundations of Geometry earned him a fellowship at Trinity College in 1895. His philosophical career took him to London School Economics, Trinity College, University of Cambridge, University of Chicago and The City College of New York as a philosophy lecturer. Some of his famous books include;
- A History of Western Philosophy (1945)
- The Principles of Mathematics (1903)
- The Problems of Philosophy (1912)
Russell was blessed with five children from three different spouses.
Russell’s Philosophical Achievements
You probably might have read about many brilliant philosophers, but we bet only a few of them can match Russell’s achievements as a philosopher. One thing that was spectacular about Russell was that he achieved across various fields, including philosophical and non-philosophical ones. Bertrand Russell was no doubt an achiever in the rational world. Some of his greatest philosophical achievements are highlighted below:
- He helped further works on logic more than anyone else since Aristotle: One of Russell’s biggest achievements as a philosopher was his work on logic. Russell more than anyone else was responsible for the greatest works in modern philosophy since Aristotle. Russell saw formal logic and science as the principal tools of a philosopher. He also postulated a new logic which he applied as the basis of his analytical philosophy called logicism. His first work on logicism appeared in his 1901 article titled Recent Work on the Principle of Mathematics. Through his career, he was also able to establish the fact that all mathematical concepts can be defined regarding logical ideas. Additionally, he was able to prove that all mathematical truths are derivable from logical truths and to show that Mathematics is nothing but logic. Furthermore, he developed two forms of analysis as a way of analyzing quantifiers in logic (words like all and some) as well as numbers in Mathematics. The first of these two was that all mathematical truths could be translated into logical truths. The second was that all mathematics theorems constitute a proper subset of the theorems of logic. He proceeded to use these forms to analyze points in space, moments of time, matter, mind, morality, knowledge, and language itself.
- He founded analytic philosophy: Russell together with his ancestor Gothob Frege and his apprentice Ludwig Wittgenstein helped establish detailed knowledge on analytic philosophy. Russell described analytic philosophy as the aspect of philosophy that logically analyzes concepts, knowledge, and language to say what there is and how we know it. Through his various works on the theory, especially on logical analysis, analysis together with synthesis became significant parts of analytic philosophy. Detailed knowledge of analytic philosophy was captured in his book Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy.
- His Theory of Descriptions (RTD): In most times, students of philosophy are usually implored to read Russell’s theory of descriptions and incomplete symbols, his “no class” theory of classes and his theory of logical types and logical constructions. However, between these theories, the theory of descriptions is considered as the most significant of his contribution to the philosophy of language. Using the theory, Russell proved that the grammar of an ordinary language is often misleading and does not correlate to its logical and semantic architecture. The theory became significant after Russell’s paper On Denoting in 1905. In recent times, RTD has been developed by various philosophers in exciting ways to bring it into harmony with other similar works within the philosophy of language.
- His social philosophy: Russell was a philosopher who participated effectively in political and social activism. Apart from being a social critic, Russell was a blunt political activist. His activism against British participation in World War I led to fines, loss of freedom of travel within Britain and the non-renewal of his fellowship at Trinity College, Cambridge. He was imprisoned in 1918 on the grounds of his interference in British foreign policy. Interestingly, he was regarded as a liberalist, socialite, and a pacifist. He was also a staunch critic of wars and nuclear weapon and heavily criticized Adolf Hitler’s role in the World War II. However, Russell was a strong advocate of internationalism, women’s suffrage, sexuality and racial equality. He collaborated with Albert Einstein to issue the Russell-Einstein Manifesto, highlighting the dangers of the nuclear war on the Vietnam War. Russell was of the view that there was a need for a scientific society where war would be abolished, population growth would be limited, and prosperity would be shared. He suggested the establishment of a single supreme world government that would be able to enforce peace, claiming that “the only thing that will redeem mankind is cooperation.” He ran unsuccessfully for Parliament in 1907 as an independent candidate.
As evident in this article, Bertrand Russell was no doubt an achiever. In fact, he ranks alongside the likes of Immanuel Kant, Karl Marx and Rene Descartes as some of the greatest philosophers in the modern era. He got rewarded for his numerous efforts in philosophical world by being named a recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1950. Even though he was a strong critic of the British government, his works as a philosopher didn’t go unnoticed as he was awarded the Order of Merit at the king’s Birthday Honors in 1949.
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