The controversial polymath who humanized British philosophy
Bertrand Russell was a British polymath, philosopher, mathematician, logician, and writer. He was a founding figure of analytic philosophy, the dominant branch of Western philosophy, and of logicism, which is the view that mathematics could be reduced to pure logic. However, apart from his career in academia, Russell was also a vocal political activist and was even imprisoned during World War I for his anti-war and anti-conscription campaigning.1
Together with the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, Russell wrote Principia Mathematica, considered one of the most influential books on logic ever written.8 However, he is probably best remembered for the dozens of books he wrote for popular audiences, which cover topics such as religion and ethics, as well as social issues including free trade and women’s suffrage.9 His work was thoroughly imbued with skepticism: he was ahead of his time in his appreciation of what we now would refer to as cognitive biases and unconscious prejudice. His critical examinations of societal institutions (including the church) often landed him in hot water, but this never deterred him from speaking his mind.
As passionate as he was about mathematics and technical philosophy, Russell’s chief concern in life was to solve problems of human suffering. His use of critical thinking and logic to dig into the many problems ailing the world has touched readers on a personal level as well as an intellectual one.
“When you allow yourself to think inexactly, your prejudices, your bias, your self-interest comes in in ways you don’t notice, and you do bad things without knowing that you’re doing them. Self-deception is very easy.” — Bertrand Russell, interviewed by Romney Wheeler, 1952
On their shoulders
For millennia, great thinkers and scholars have been working to understand the quirks of the human mind. Today, we’re privileged to put their insights to work, helping organizations to reduce bias and create better outcomes.
Two key ideas stand out:
Russell’s paradox – A puzzle for mathematical philosophers
One of Russell’s most famous contributions to the world of math, Russell’s paradox is a central problem in logicism, the school of thought that maintains all mathematics is reducible to logic. Although some logicians (including Russell himself) have since proposed resolutions to it, it had a monumental influence on mathematical philosophy in the 20th century. Although it was technically first noticed by the German mathematician Ernst Zermelo, the paradox didn’t become influential until it was mentioned in a letter from Bertrand Russell to Gottlob Frege in 1902.2
The simplest way to explain Russell’s paradox is through a puzzle named the barber paradox. Let’s say there’s a barber, who can be described as “one who shaves all those, and those only, who do not shave themselves.” The question is, does the barber shave himself? When we try to answer this question, we run into a paradox: if the barber does shave himself, then it can’t be true that he only shaves those who do not shave themselves; but at the same time, if the barber doesn’t shave himself, it can’t be true that he shaves all those who do not shave themselves.
What does all this have to do with math? Well, when Russell described this paradox to Gottlob Frege, Frege had just finished writing the second volume of his life’s work, The Basic Laws of Arithmetic, where he believed he had proven that logic was the foundation of all mathematics. Frege’s theory depended on the idea that all concepts in the universe can be described as belonging to sets. But when he shared his theory with Russell, Russell responded by asking: What about the set of all sets that are not members of themselves? Is that a member of itself?1 Trying to answer this question sets off a never ending chain of contradictions, for the same reason we can’t say whether or not the barber shaves himself.
Russell’s paradox is the most famous of the logical paradoxes,2 and is seen by many as having fundamentally changed the way that people thought about logicism and mathematical philosophy.3 Although Russell didn’t initially realize how significant his idea was,3 some felt like he had dealt a devastating blow to humankind’s understanding of math—especially Frege, who became deeply depressed after Russell’s paradox blew apart his proposed foundations of mathematics.
Russell’s teapot – A lesson in skepticism
Russell’s teapot is an analogy that Bertrand Russell used to make a statement about where the burden of proof should lie in philosophical and theological debates. The analogy comes from an essay titled “Is There a God?”, which had been commissioned by a magazine in 1952.4 Russell used it specifically in the context of religion, and it has become a cornerstone of atheistic arguments since. However, it can also be applied to philosophical discussions more broadly, and is an example of how, as a public intellectual, Russell was able to make the methods and insights of philosophy more accessible to a wider audience.5
The teapot analogy, as silly as it is simple, goes like this: Imagine somebody came up to you and told you that, somewhere in outer space, there was a china teapot revolving around the sun. The thing is, the teapot is too small to be seen through any man made telescope, meaning that there’s no way to disprove the claim that it exists.
Russell argued that, even though any reasonable person would dismiss an assertion like this, many people accept a similarly unfalsifiable claim—that God exists—just because it is “affirmed in ancient books, taught as the sacred truth every Sunday, and instilled into the minds of children at school.” His point was that, when debating questions such as whether or not there is a God, the burden should be on the person making unfalsifiable claims to prove that they are true, not the other way around. Russell’s teapot has been highly influential in theological discussions, but more broadly, it showcases Russell’s rejection of dogmatic thinking, and how his writing encouraged non-philosophers to engage critically with their own assumptions. In the present day, when disinformation and conspiratorial thinking is on the rise in an alarming way, applying the lesson of Russell’s teapot is as important as ever.
In contrast to the dense, technical writing that originally made Russell famous, the teapot analogy (and the essay it comes from) were directed at a non-academic audience, and was part of Russell’s broader effort to make philosophy more accessible and useful to the average person. While contemporary philosophers viewed Russell’s popular writing as evidence that he had “sold out,” it is arguable that the work he did in this part of his career left the biggest impact on society.5
Even though Russell was born into one of Britain’s most prominent aristocratic families, his early life was defined by a series of tragedies: the deaths of nearly all of his close family members, including his parents, his sister, and his grandfather. Russell and his brother, Frank, were raised by their grandmother.1 This hardship affected him deeply, and in his autobiography, he wrote that in his youth he contemplated suicide, but decided against it because of his love of mathematics, and his desire for knowledge.10
Russell studied at Trinity College at the University of Cambridge, starting out in mathematics but later switching to philosophy. At the time, the dominant strain of philosophy was idealism, the view that the world exists as part of a single spirit or consciousness, and that it is impossible to examine any one entity in isolation. Russell initially followed in this tradition, but later, influenced by his friend G.E. Moore as well as several German mathematicians,1 abandoned idealism and became a major figure in the movement towards analytic philosophy. In this view, the world is seen as being reducible to logical “atoms,” which exist independently of each other. Because of Russell and his contemporaries, British philosophy shifted from something largely spiritual in nature to a field more grounded in logic and reason. Along with Gottlob Frege, Russell also founded logicism.1
From 1910-1913, Russell and Alfred North Whitehead published Principia Mathematica, a three-volume work of logicism that presented a possible solution to Russell’s Paradox (known as the “theory of types”). Even though the work is still regarded as one of the great intellectual achievements of the 20th century,8 around the time it came out, Russell’s focus started to shift away from dense, academic philosophy to more accessible essays and books on a range of topics. In 1911, he told his lover, Ottoline Morrell, that “what remains for me to do in philosophy (I mean technical philosophy) does not seem to me of first-rate importance.”5
In the years that followed, Russell became a vocal activist, and spent several months in Brixton prison for opposing the Great War. He also began to write and give lectures on a variety of topics outside of technical philosophy. His political and religious views ended up coming at a great professional cost—he lost his job at Trinity College, along with an opportunity to go to Harvard11—as well as a personal one. On the one hand, Russell’s pacifism had alienated him from most people in Britain; and on the other, he hated the Bolsheviks, which alienated him from the few people who tolerated his pacifism (generally socialists).12 Still, Russell never compromised on his principles, and remained skeptical and resistant to dogma despite the controversies that followed him.
“Philosophical progress seems to me analogous to the gradually increasing clarity of outline of a mountain approached through mist, which is vaguely visible at first, but even at last remains in some degree indistinct. What I have never been able to accept is that the mist itself conveys valuable elements of truth. There are those who think that clarity, because it is difficult and rare, should be suspect. The rejection of this view has been the
deepest impulse in all my philosophical work.”
— Bertrand Russell, The Basic Writings of Bertrand Russell
“Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric.”
― Bertrand Russell
“Having made the decision, do not revise it unless some new fact comes to your knowledge. Nothing is so exhausting as indecision, and nothing is so futile.”
― Bertrand Russell, The Conquest of Happiness
“In all affairs it’s a healthy thing now and then to hang a question mark on the things you have long taken for granted.”
― Bertrand Russell
“To teach how to live without certainty, and yet without being paralyzed by hesitation, is perhaps the chief thing that philosophy, in our age, can still do for those who study it.”
― Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy
“I would never die for my beliefs because I might be wrong.”
― Bertrand Russell
“A stupid man’s report of what a clever man says can never be accurate, because he unconsciously translates what he hears into something he can understand.”
― Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy
“Three passions, simple but overwhelmingly strong, have governed my life: the longing for love, the search for knowledge, and unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind.”
— Bertrand Russell, Autobiography
“I did not write Principles of Social Reconstruction in my capacity as a ‘philosopher’; I wrote it as a human being who suffered from the state of the world, wished to find some way of improving it, and was anxious to speak in plain terms to others who had similar feelings. If I had never written technical books, this would be obvious to everybody; and if the book is to be understood, my technical activities must be forgotten.”
— Bertrand Russell, The Philosophy of Bertrand Russell
“The world in which I have lived has been a very rapidly changing world. The changes have been in part such as I could welcome, but in part such as I could only assimilate in terms borrowed from tragic drama. I could not welcome whole-heartedly any presentation of my activities as a writer which made it seem as though I had been indifferent to the very remarkable transformations which it has been my good or ill fortune to experience.”
— Bertrand Russell, The Basic Writings of Bertrand Russell
This collection of Russell’s writing, which was originally published in 1961 and contains a brief foreword from the man himself, is a valiant attempt to condense Russell’s prolific writing career into one volume of “greatest hits.” From linguistics to metaphysics to history to moral philosophy, the book includes samplings from his work in a huge number of fields.
The Bertrand Russell Archives — McMaster University
McMaster University hosts this massive online archive of Bertrand Russell’s letters, manuscripts, films, and more.
“Is There a God?” (Essay)
This is the essay on atheism where Russell introduced his teapot analogy.
In this interview, Russell talks about his life, what he’s learned over his career as a philosopher, and how his thinking has evolved.
“Why I am Not a Christian” (Talk)
One of Russell’s most famous essays (here delivered as a lecture), here the philosopher lays out his arguments supporting atheism.
“Bertrand Russell on Immortality, Why Religion Exists, and What ‘The Good Life’ Really Means” — Maria Popova, Brain Pickings
This article explores Russell’s enduring influence, and some of the ideas for which he is best known.
- Monk, R. (n.d.). Bertrand Russell. Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Bertrand-Russell
- Irvine, A. D., & Deutsch, H. (2016). Russell’s paradox. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/russell-paradox/#RPCL
- Link, G. (2004). One hundred years of Russell ́s paradox: Mathematics, logic, philosophy. Walter de Gruyter.
- Russell, B. (1952). Is There a God? The Campaign for Philosophical Freedom. https://www.cfpf.org.uk/articles/religion/br/br_god.html
- Baggini, J. (2019, December 31). What people get wrong about Bertrand Russell. Prospect Magazine. https://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/philosophy/what-people-get-wrong-about-bertrand-russell-philosophy-logic
- Gutting, G. (2014, February 9). Is atheism irrational? New York Times – Opinionator. https://web.archive.org/web/20140210022302/https://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/02/09/is-atheism-irrational/
- Irvine, A. D. (1995, December 7). Bertrand Russell. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/russell/
- Linsky, B. (1996, May 21). Principia Mathematica. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/principia-mathematica/#SOPM
- Slater, J. G. (2009). Introduction. In R. E. Egner & L. E. Dennon (Eds.), The basic writings of bertrand Russell. Routledge. https://emilkirkegaard.dk/en/wp-content/uploads/The-Basic-Writings-of-Bertrand-Russell.pdf
- Brink, A. (1985). Death, depression and creativity: A psychological approach to bertrand Russell. Higher Education Quarterly, 39(4), 310-327. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1468-2273.1985.tb02059.x
- Esteves, O. (2015, May 1). Bertrand Russell, the utilitarian pacifist. Revue Française de Civilisation Britannique. http://journals.openedition.org/rfcb/308; DOI: https://doi.org/10.4000/rfcb.308
- Manufacturing Intellect. (2020, July 10). A Conversation with Bertrand Russell (1952) [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xL_sMXfzzyA&feature=youtu.be