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Born: 1872, Trelleck, Monmouthshire, England

Died: 1970, near Penrhyndeudraeth, Merioneth, Wales

Major Works: Principia Mathematica (with A. N. Whitehead) (1910, 1912, and 1913), The Problems of Philosophy (1912), Our Knowledge of the External World (1914), Mysticism and Logic (1917), A History of Western Philosophy (1945), Human Knowledge: Its Scope and Limits (1948), Why I Am Not a Christian (1927).

Major Ideas

The Theory of Types: Sentences may be not only true or false but meaningless because of inconsistent uses of language.

The Theory of Descriptions: Existence is a property of propositional functions; it is not a property of things.

All knowledge of the world is derived from sense data.

We do not know objects directly, but only indirectly, through sensations.

The right action is always that which will, from a purely objective point of view, have the best consequences, that is, the one that will produce the greatest good and the least evil.

Good is whatever produces the greatest satisfaction for the greatest number; one form of satisfaction is as good as any other.

Determinism is probably true, but it does not follow from this that human beings are not responsible for what they do.

Morality is not dependent upon God's approval or disapproval.

All of the proofs for the existence of God are fallacious.

Christ is not divine, and Christianity is a particularly cruel and inhuman religion.

There is very little likelihood that there is an afterlife.

Bertrand Arthur William Russell, 3d Earl Russell, knew virtually nothing of his parents (who died when he was very young) until after he reached the age of twenty-one. His father had appointed two freethinkers as Russell's guardians, but his grandparents had the will set aside and gained custody of the three-year-old future philosopher. Russell described his grandmother as "a Puritan, with the moral rigidity of the Covenanters, despising comfort, indifferent to food, hating wine, and regarding tobacco as sinful." Although he came to detest her religious zealotry, he was profoundly influenced by two texts that she had inscribed in a Bible she gave him on his twelfth birthday: "Thou shalt not follow a multitude to do evil" and "Be strong, and of a good courage; be not afraid, neither be Thou dismayed."

His discovery of Euclid at age eleven marked an important transition point in his life. From that time on, he was intensely interested in mathematics, partly because of the sheer delight he experienced in deductive reasoning, and partly because of an early belief that all of nature, including human behavior, must operate according to mathematical laws and was therefore completely predictable, if only we had enough information.

After reading John Stuart Mill at age eighteen, he concluded that the traditional proofs for God's existence were fallacious. In the meantime, he had been examining and rejecting many of the doctrines that he had previously been taught, including the theory of free will and the doctrine of immortality.

During his years at Cambridge, he met a number of people who were to become his friends and intellectual colleagues, including, particularly, J. McTaggart, Alfred N. Whitehead, and G. E. Moore.

Russell lived a very long, productive life. He made important contributions to virtually every area of philosophy. And he never stopped inquiring, searching, and reexamining his earlier views. He was intellectually fearless and scrupulously honest. Consequently he often changed his mind about important questions He once said that if someone showed him that the views he had expressed in one book Were wrong he would not hesitate to publish another book repudiating the first. Because he often acted :upon that principle, it is difficult to say just what his views on some subjects were, for the answer depends upon the period of his life to which one is referring.

He firmly believed in the usefulness of Ockham's razor, the principle that one should not unnecessarily multiply entities in attempting to explain the universe. It was this principle that ultimately led to the general adoption of Copernicus's theory that the sun is at the center of the solar system--for it offered a simple explanation of planetary motions, while the competing Ptolemaic theory had to postulate the existence of hundreds of "epicycles," Russell applied Ockham's razor to mathematics. He thus rejected Plato s idea that cardinal integers are timeless entities or forms." Instead, he argued for a "minimum vocabulary" that is, an irreducible set of terms or symbols from which the remainder of a science can be inferred.

The Theory of Types

Like many philosophers before him, Russell was puzzled by certain paradoxes that were particularly resistant to resolution Epimenides the Cretan, for example, claimed that all Cretans are liars. If Epimenides is telling the truth, then he must be lying; but if he is lying he must be telling the truth. Similarly, it is reasonable to suppose that every propositional function (or, in ordinary language, every term that one might use in a sentence, such as the word man) determines a class (in our example, all of the male members of the species homo sapiens). Some classes are members of themselves (for example, the class of things that can be counted is itself a thing that can be counted) and others are not (the class of, men that is itself not a man). But if the class of classes that are not members of them selves is a member of itself, then it is not; and if it is not, then it is.

Though many people might be inclined to dismiss such paradoxes as trivial but amusing puzzles, Russell took them as serious challenges to logical theory. He developed the theory of types in an attempt to solve these paradoxes and others. The theory is too complex to explain here. Suffice it to say that it is based upon the assumption that the paradoxes are attributable to faults in language and not to any contradictions inherent in reality. The theory proposes to resolve the paradoxes by explaining that words that appear to be the same are often not really the same, because they refer to different things or refer differently and are therefore on different levels. Russell revised the theory a number of times during his life to meet various objections that were raised against it, but none of the revisions was completely satisfactory, even to him.

The Theory of Descriptions

In rejecting Platonism, Russell concluded that nouns do not refer to eternally existing things like those that Plato called "Ideas" or "Forms." Plato's theory populated the universe with altogether too many things to satisfy the principle of Ockham's razor. Although one may talk about unicorns, golden mountains, and the present king of France, it is absurd to suppose that any of these "things" exists in any meaningful sense at all. The problem is to explain how a nonentity can be the subject of a proposition: How is it possible to talk sensibly about things that don't exist? Russell responded by analyzing statements in such a way that existence is made explicit. Thus, a statement like "A unicorn has one horn" would be translated into something like, "If there is anything that is a unicorn, then that thing has one horn." Some propositions, such as "The present king of France is bald," implicitly state that their subjects exist. A full analysis of this statement would be: "At least one person is a king of Franc e, at most one person is a king of France, and there is nobody who is a king of France and not bald." Since the statement implicitly asserts that a king of France exists, and since there is no king of France, the sentence is simply false. The phrase "the present king of France" refers to nothing at all.

Perception Theory

George Berkeley had concluded that what we sense is in our minds and that we therefore have no evidence of things existing outside our minds. Russell insisted that although we learn whatever we know about a table from sense data (our sense perceptions), what we know about is a table and not our perceptions. Nevertheless, some puzzles remain: Different people under different conditions may have very different sense data relative to the same table. Different people viewing a table from different angles will see the color differently. The color of the table is just the sort of color it will seem to have to a normal viewer from an ordinary point of view under normal light conditions. "But the other colours which appear under other conditions have just as good a right to be considered real," he says, so to avoid "favouritism," we must deny that the table has any one color. All of the table's other properties (shape, size, texture, and the like) are equally variable as perceived under various conditions by differen t people. Consequently, Russell concludes that we have no direct knowledge of the table's properties, although we may infer what its properties are from the "signs" that our sensations, which are caused by the table's properties, reveal to us.

Ethical Theory

Russell abandoned his early belief that goodness and badness are intrinsic qualities of things and adopted the view that we generally call things "good" if we desire them and "bad" if we have an aversion to them. However, he acknowledged that there are some clear exceptions to this rule, for people often condition their desires on what some authority tells them they ought to desire. Moreover, they frequently come to believe that their own desires are bad. In the last analysis, ethical judgments are not based upon anything scientific or philosophical, but upon emotion. There is no objective truth as to good and evil. It all boils down to a matter of taste.

When a person makes an ethical judgment, however, he is not merely expressing his personal feelings. Such judgments are also expressions of how the speaker wishes the world would be and how others would act.

Russell believed that human actions derive from three sources: instinct, mind, and spirit. Instinct is presumably whatever more or less automatically occurs as a result of our animal natures: seeking food and water when one is hungry and thirsty, seeking a sex partner when one is physically mature, fleeing from danger, and so on. Mind as a source of conduct leads to the pursuit of knowledge, and spirit to religious consciousness.

Russell did not believe that it was necessary for human beings to acquiesce in the dictates of nature, though we are all of course limited in what we can do by the laws of nature, In the realm of values, he wrote, "we are kings, and we debase our kingship if we bow down to Nature. It is for us to determine the good life, not for Nature."

In this connection, he held that it was likely that determinism was true. That is, if one could know all the laws of nature, and all there was to know about the condition of the universe at any particular moment, one should in principle be able to deduce what would occur at any future time, and predict accurately what any given individual would do in any future situation. This theory has led some philosophers to deny that individuals have any freedom to decide for themselves what they will do. Their actions are caused, or determined, by previous states of affairs and natural laws over which they have no control. This in turn would lead to the conclusion that people are not morally responsible for their behavior. Russell's view, however, is quite the opposite. He says that if a person's actions had no cause, then it would be particularly inappropriate to hold him responsible for what he did, for his actions would have been chance happenings over which he had no control whatever. We hold people responsible bec ause we believe that their acts are conditioned by the influences--educational, moral, and religious to which they have been subjected. If they were not, it would make no sense to express praise or blame. He concludes that determinism and free will (and thus moral responsibility) are not only fully compatible with each other but require each other.

He thoroughly disagreed with those who accused him of, inconsistency for having said that morality was ultimately a personal, subjective matter, while he vehemently expressed his opinions on a wide range of moral issues. He insisted that ethical statements are neither true nor false, but are expressions of the speaker's feelings. The purpose of persuasion in ethics is quite different from what it is in science. It is to rouse people to desire what the speaker desires and is thus akin, to preaching. Logical demonstration and moral persuasion are completely different activities, but there is no inconsistency in doing both He insisted that no amount of logic would persuade him to forgo his right to feel and express ethical passions. "There are some men whom I admire, and others whom I think vile; some political systems seem to me tolerable, others an abomination. Pleasure in the spectacle of cruelty horrifies me, and I am not ashamed of the fact that it does. I am no more prepared to give up all this than I am to give up the multiplication table."

Criticism of Christianity

Russell concluded very early that the traditional arguments for the existence of God are fallacious, and he never saw any reason to revise that judgment. He saw no evidence whatever for the existence of a benevolent deity. Indeed, if the usual inferences are drawn from the world to the existence of some supreme power, it would be more reasonable to conclude that the universe is created by a malevolent demon.

He felt that the Christian religion is particularly infected with absurd beliefs and superstitions. He took pleasure in ridiculing the Roman Catholic church, which "holds that a priest can turn a piece of bread into the Body and Blood of Christ by talking Latin to it." He particularly fulminated against the Church's obscurantism, its repression of intellectually creative people, and its deification of some rather detestable people. He concluded that Christian apologists tended, dishonestly, to overlook the less-desirable traits and doctrines of Jesus of Nazareth, who was, in Russell's opinion, intolerant, vindictive, cruel, and bloodthirsty. He believed that it was impossible to believe that Christianity has had an elevating moral influence, unless one ignored or falsified the historical evidence.

Further Reading.

Ayer, A. J. Bertrand Russell. New York: Viking Press, 1972. An excellent introduction to Russell's life and major theories, clearly written, thorough. and interesting. Ayer is an extremely influential philosopher in his own right, and points out where his views differ from Russell's.

Schilpp, Paul Arthur, ed. The Philosophy of Bertrand Russell. New York: Tudor, 1951. This volume in the "Library of Living Philosophers," first published in 1944, contains an intellectual autobiography, more than twenty articles by distinguished philosophers on various aspects of Russell's work, and Russell's responses to his critics.

Wood, Alan. Bertrand Russell, the Passionate Skeptic. London: Allen & Unwin, 1957. A well-written, often entertaining biography.
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Publication:Great Thinkers of the Western World
Article Type:Biography
Date:Jan 1, 1999
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