Bertrand was born in 1872 into "one of the most prominent aristocratic families in Britain." By that time, the Russells had "established themselves as one of Britain's leading Whig families, and participated in every great political event from the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1536–40 to the Glorious Revolution in 1688–89 and the Great Reform Act in 1832." His paternal grandfather had twice served as Prime Minister, once in the 1840s and again in the 1860s. His parents were radically liberal at the time, accepting an open marital arrangement, advocating for birth control, and professing atheism publicly to the point that they asked the philosopher John Stuart Mill to act as Bertrand's secular godfather.
This incredibly fortunate place of birth was soon met with much tragedy though. John Stuart Mill died when Bertrand was just one (though his writings later had a huge effect on Bertrand's life). Russell's mother died when he was two, followed by his only sister shortly thereafter. His father died when he was three, which resulted in him and his older brother being sent to live with his staunchly victorian grandparents. His (ex-Prime Minister) grandfather died when he was six though, leaving him in the care of his 64 year old grandmother for the rest of his childhood. He was "educated at home by a series of tutors. Russell's adolescence was very lonely, and he often contemplated suicide. At age eleven, his brother Frank introduced him to the work of Euclid, which transformed Russell's life. He remarked in his autobiography that his keenest interests were in religion and mathematics, and that only his wish to know more mathematics kept him from suicide." It seems from several quotes that Bertrand came to rely on the bedrock of mathematics as a solid retreat from his chaotic childhood filled with so much promise, change, and death.
In action, in desire, we must submit perpetually to the tyranny of outside forces; but in thought, in aspiration, we are free, free from our fellowmen, free from the petty planet on which our bodies impotently crawl, free even, while we live, from the tyranny of death.
Real life is, to most men, a long second-best, a perpetual compromise between the ideal and the possible; but the world of pure reason knows no compromise, no practical limitations, no barrier to the passionate aspiration after the perfect, from which all great work springs.
It seems to me now that mathematics is capable of an artistic excellence as great as that of any music, perhaps greater.
I like mathematics because it is not human and has nothing particular to do with this planet or with the whole accidental universe – because, like Spinoza's God, it won't love us in return.
How poignant. But is mathematics really so removed from our world of understanding? Isn't it only as it is precisely because of the material nature of the universe? The fact that things can be separate and distinct gives us the numbers of mathematics. The way that material objects come together, fall apart, or can be grouped together with stability into different combinations gives us the basic operations of addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. Imagine if we lived in a universe where Jesus could actually create loaves and fishes out of thin air. This story from the Sermon on the Mount may throw us off the track because it uses the term "multiplication of loaves and fishes," but the loaves and fishes didn't cross with one another to create more of both in the way that multiplication actually works—they are purported to simply have sprung to life out of nothing. What mathematical operation should be used to more accurately describe this action? There are none! If our universe actually behaved in this manner, our concepts of numbers and mathematical operations would be very different. Five loaves would just as likely be 4, 10, or 52 at any moment, so numbers would be temporary, almost irrelevant. Objects wouldn't add to or subtract from one another, they would just change spontaneously in any direction. Other philosophers use the supposed independence of mathematics from the world as proof that there is an idealistic plane of existence beyond the mere physical, but I think this is wrong. Logic and mathematics are merely reflections of the way our universe works. Still, because of the essential eternity and permanence of our universe from a human perspective, I see why Bertrand Russell saw mathematics as something different. And for the father of analytic philosophy—a school that retreated from the fuzzy world of ethical systems and tortured arguments about metaphysical origins to focus more simply on the objective fields of logic and mathematics—we can now see Russell's psychological motivations as well. He did go on to write much about the traditional fields of philosophical inquiry, but he always considered those speculations to be secondary.
Philosophy seems to me on the whole a rather hopeless business.
The point of philosophy is to start with something so simple as not to seem worth stating, and to end with something so paradoxical that no one will believe it.
In fact, his pupil Ludwig Wittgenstein once said, "Russell's books should be bound in two colours, those dealing with mathematical logic in red – and all students of philosophy should read them; those dealing with ethics and politics in blue – and no one should be allowed to read them." Russell may have even agreed with this sentiment; at least in moments of levity. When asked why he didn't write on aesthetics, Russell replied that he didn't know anything about it, "but that is not a very good excuse, for my friends tell me it has not deterred me from writing on other subjects." He knew plenty though, so let's look now at some of the main "red" and "blue" writings of Russell by considering my analysis of him within my list of the survival of the fittest philosophers.
Bertrand Russell (1872-1970 CE) was a British philosopher, logician, mathematician, historian, socialist, pacifist, and social critic. He is considered one of the founders of analytic philosophy and is widely held to be one of the 20th century's premier logicians.
For most of his adult life Russell maintained that religion is little more than superstition, and despite any positive effects that religion might have, it is largely harmful to people. He believed religion and the religious outlook (he considered communism and other systematic ideologies to be forms of religion) serve to impede knowledge, foster fear and dependency, and are responsible for much of the war, oppression, and misery that have beset the world. Yes. As shown above. Good to see this penetrating the discourse.
Russell claimed that he was more convinced of his method of doing philosophy than of his philosophical conclusions. Science was one of the principal components of analysis. Russell was a believer in the scientific method, that science reaches only tentative answers, that scientific progress is piecemeal, and attempts to find organic unities were largely futile. He believed the same was true of philosophy. Russell held that the ultimate objective of both science and philosophy was to understand reality, not simply to make predictions. Our knowledge is probabilistic and the scientific method helps to uncover it. Philosophy loves this knowledge, organizes it, and directs its inquiry. Philosophy will evolve as our knowledge evolves.
Russell sought clarity and precision in argument by the use of exact language and by breaking down philosophical propositions into their simplest grammatical components. In 1900, he became familiar with the work of the Italian mathematician, Giuseppe Peano. He mastered Peano's new symbolism and his set of axioms for arithmetic. Peano defined logically all of the terms of these axioms with the exception of ‘0’, ‘number’, ‘successor’, and the singular term, ‘the’, which were the primitives of his system. Russell took it upon himself to find logical definitions for each of these. Yes, but this is where philosophy began to confine itself to only a minor part of philosophy. It is simply logic applied to language and mathematics.
Needs to Adapt
A significant contribution to philosophy of language is Russell's theory of descriptions. The theory considers the sentence "The present King of France is bald" and whether the proposition is false or meaningless. Frege had argued, employing his distinction between sense and reference, that such sentences were meaningful but neither true nor false. Russell argues that the grammatical form of the sentence disguises its underlying logical form. Russell's Theory of Definite Descriptions enables the sentence to be construed as meaningful but false, without commitment to the existence of any present King of France. The problem is general to what are called "definite descriptions.” Normally this includes all terms beginning with "the," and sometimes includes names, like "Walter Scott.” (This point is quite contentious: Russell sometimes thought that the latter terms shouldn't be called names at all, but only "disguised definite descriptions," but much subsequent work has treated them as altogether different things.) What is the "logical form" of definite descriptions: how, in Frege's terms, could we paraphrase them in order to show how the truth of the whole depends on the truths of the parts? Definite descriptions appear to be like names that by their very nature denote exactly one thing, neither more nor less. What, then, are we to say about the proposition as a whole if one of its parts apparently isn't functioning correctly? In this example, the role of the word “present” is ignored. Present defines the time period as when the reader reads it. Then the definite description of “the king of France” can be understood perfectly well and the statement can be true or false. This over-analysis of grammar known as analytical philosophy is just logic applied to writing. It is important to be clear, but this is a small part of our overarching knowledge. It does not deserve the central role in philosophy departments that it has achieved. It consigns them to the role of fussy nitpicker, rather than the broad-minded lover of wisdom.
While Russell wrote a great deal on ethical subject matters, he did not believe that the subject belonged to philosophy or that when he wrote on ethics that he did so in his capacity as a philosopher. He believed that moral facts were objective, but known only through intuition and that these simple, undefinable moral properties cannot be analyzed using the non-moral properties with which they are associated. In time, however, he came to agree with his philosophical hero, David Hume, who believed that ethical terms dealt with subjective values that cannot be verified in the same way as matters of fact. Ethics arise from nature. They arise from life’s need to stay alive in the long-term. Values can be objectively verified by the success of the resulting actions at keeping a species alive.
Much of Russell's prolific output was not up to the high standards of his objective contributions to logic, but it would be a great shame not to pick through his writing to discover the many, many gems of subjective thoughts that he penned as well. I'll finish this already long essay with a simple list of some of those aphorisms to let Russell have the last words. He surely deserves them.
Whatever knowledge is attainable, must be attained by scientific methods; and what science cannot discover, mankind cannot know.
When you are studying any matter, or considering any philosophy, ask yourself only: What are the facts, and what is the truth that the facts bear out. Never let yourself be diverted, either by what you wish to believe, or by what you think would have beneficent social effects if it were believed; but look only and solely at what are the facts.
To save the world requires faith and courage: faith in reason, and courage to proclaim what reason shows to be true.
The fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.
Humankind has become so much one family that we cannot ensure our own prosperity except by ensuring that of everyone else. If you wish to be happy yourself, you must resign yourself to seeing others also happy.
It is preoccupation with possession, more than anything else, that prevents men from living freely and nobly.
Advocates of capitalism are very apt to appeal to the sacred principles of liberty, which are embodied in one maxim: The fortunate must not be restrained in the exercise of tyranny over the unfortunate.
If I were granted omnipotence, and millions of years to experiment in, I should not think Man much to boast of as the final result of all my efforts.
It is possible that mankind is on the threshold of a golden age; but, if so, it will be necessary first to slay the dragon that guards the door, and this dragon is religion.
If a man is offered a fact which goes against his instincts, he will scrutinize it closely, and unless the evidence is overwhelming, he will refuse to believe it. If, on the other hand, he is offered something which affords a reason for acting in accordance with his instincts, he will accept it even on the slenderest evidence. The origin of myths is explained in this way.
The Ten Commandments that, as a teacher, I should wish to promulgate, might be set forth as follows:
1. Do not feel absolutely certain of anything.
2. Do not think it worth while to proceed by concealing evidence, for the evidence is sure to come to light.
3. Never try to discourage thinking for you are sure to succeed.
4. When you meet with opposition, even if it should be from your husband or your children, endeavour to overcome it by argument and not by authority, for a victory dependent upon authority is unreal and illusory.
5. Have no respect for the authority of others, for there are always contrary authorities to be found.
6. Do not use power to suppress opinions you think pernicious, for if you do the opinions will suppress you.
7. Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric.
8. Find more pleasure in intelligent dissent that in passive agreement, for, if you value intelligence as you should, the former implies a deeper agreement than the latter.
9. Be scrupulously truthful, even if the truth is inconvenient, for it is more inconvenient when you try to conceal it.
10. Do not feel envious of the happiness of those who live in a fool's paradise, for only a fool will think that it is happiness.
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 is also rendered great.