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Bertrand Russell

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The Passionate Bertrand Russell

Peter Stone reveals the deep and varied passions of the analytic philosopher.

Philosophy today is intimately associated with the life of the mind – with intellect, thought, and reason. Because of this, it is often thought to be opposed to emotion, feeling, spirit – to passion. It is thought to be a bloodless occupation, practiced by bloodless men and women. This has a lot to do with how philosophy has come to be practiced in universities, particularly the analytic philosophy which has dominated the Anglo-American philosophy world over the past century. And perhaps nobody is more closely associated with analytic philosophy than Bertrand Russell (1872-1970). As such, one might expect Russell to be the exact opposite of the man of passion. And indeed, many people have viewed Russell this way. Will Durant, for example, once described Russell as “cold-blooded… a temporarily animated abstraction, a formula with legs” (The Story of Philosophy, 1926, p.519). But was Russell really such a stranger to passion?

Bertrand Russell
Bertrand Russell
© Katy Baker 2017

In fact, the opposite is the case. Russell’s life is actually very instructive about the relationship between reason and passion. For Russell proved that a life of the mind can be fully compatible with a life of great passion and adventure. He managed to fit more passion into his life than most people could handle. (It probably helped that he lived to be ninety-seven years old.)

Of course, there’s no place for passion in your life unless you can find something about which to be passionate. What were Russell’s passions? In the opening words of his Autobiography, Russell tells us that

“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.”
(The Autobiography of Bertrand Russell: Volume I, 1967).

The easiest way to get a handle on the emotional side of Bertrand Russell is to consider each of these three passions in turn. To understand these passions is to understand Russell.

Russell’s Quest For Truth

Russell was of course a philosopher by trade, and so it makes sense to begin any discussion of Russell’s passions by considering his search for knowledge.

As a boy, Russell was introduced to mathematics by his older brother, Frank. Russell loved the subject, but he was disappointed to learn that mathematics rested upon axioms – ideas which were assumed to be self-evident, but which were not proven, such as ‘1+1=2’, or ‘parallel lines never intersect’. He went up to Trinity College Cambridge in 1890, hoping for something better, but he was very disappointed with what he found there. To him, mathematics as practiced at Cambridge seemed to be nothing more than a toolkit of technical tricks used to solve problems. It functioned with only a vague and intuitive understanding of some of the central concepts that lay at its core, such as ‘number’, ‘limit’, and ‘infinity’. He was therefore delighted to learn that there were mathematicians elsewhere in the world – great minds such as Georg Cantor, Karl Weierstrass, and Richard Dedekind – who were actively tackling these difficult philosophical questions. This led Russell into the area of work which would establish his intellectual reputation – the philosophy of mathematics.

Along with his friend the Cambridge philosopher G.E. Moore, Russell became one of the founders of analytic philosophy. This movement was inspired by the idea that many concepts of ordinary language are vague, and that the proper method of philosophy is to make our concepts more precise, thereby advancing our ability to establish which ideas are true and which are false. This attitude is clearly visible in Russell’s attitude towards mathematics and his desire to more rigorously define the central concepts of the discipline. Then Russell became acquainted in 1900 with the work of Giuseppe Peano, an Italian mathematician who had created a set of axioms which were suitable for deriving the results of traditional arithmetic. Russell was inspired by this work and believed that it could be extended to show that all of mathematics could be derived from a few foundational concepts of logic. He had already been tinkering with the idea of writing a book on the foundations of mathematics; his encounter with Peano gave this work a definite direction. To this end, Russell wrote a book entitled The Principles of Mathematics (1903).

He hoped to write a sequel to advance the ideas in this book further, and to tie up a number of philosophical ‘loose ends’, and so he teamed up with his old mentor at Cambridge, Alfred North Whitehead. Whitehead had also written a book on the foundations of mathematics, called A Treatise on Universal Algebra (1898), and also wished to publish a sequel. So Russell and Whitehead began collaborating on a work that eventually became the three-volume Principia Mathematica, finally published in 1910, 1912, and 1913. It is a long and difficult work, and no one can doubt its level of rigor: it is not until midway through the second volume that Russell and Whitehead are able to establish that 1+1=2. (After proving this result, they quip in a footnote, “The above proposition is occasionally useful.”)

Unfortunately this work, although impressive, did not accomplish what Russell had hoped, which was to place all of mathematics on the secure foundation of fundamental concepts of logic, in particular, the logic of sets. Indeed, his work uncovered a number of deep and difficult philosophical problems, one of the most important of which would become known as the ‘Russell Paradox’. Briefly, the paradox arises when one considers sets or classes of things, some of which might be other sets or classes. Some sets are members of themselves: ‘the set of all sets’ is itself a set, and so is a member of itself. Other sets are not members of themselves: ‘the set of all shoes’ is not itself a shoe. But suppose one considers ‘the set of all sets that do not belong to themselves’. Does this set belong to itself? If it does belong to itself, then it cannot belong to itself. But if it does not belong to itself, then it must belong to itself. Hence a paradox.

The problems that were uncovered in the writing of the Principia Mathematica suggest that the project of finding logical foundations for mathematics which was motivating Russell and Whitehead might well be impossible to achieve. Indeed, Kurt Gödel’s famous Incompleteness Theorem is often interpreted as proving precisely that.

Russell’s quest for certainty in mathematics might not sound like the stuff of passion, but Russell felt otherwise. Russell lost his faith in religion as a teenager, and remained an agnostic throughout the rest of his life. Intellectual certainty would, he hoped, provide a sort of surrogate satisfaction. “I wanted certainty,” he wrote in his Autobiography, “in the kind of way in which people want religious faith. I thought that certainty is more likely to be found in mathematics than elsewhere” (Volume III, 1969, p.326). This is the reason why Russell’s biographer Alan Wood wrote that, “I believe the underlying purpose behind all Russell’s work was an almost religious passion for some truth that was more than human, independent of the minds of men, and even the existence of men” (Bertrand Russell: The Passionate Skeptic, p.192, 1957. Another good source on this topic is Stefan Andersson, In Quest of Certainty, 1994.) Russell’s failure to achieve this ambition surely counted as a sort of spiritual disappointment for him.

Russell’s Quest For Love

When Russell wasn’t seeking knowledge he was often seeking love. Like his quest for certainty in mathematics, his quest for love had its ups and downs. He was married four times. His first marriage, to the American Quaker Alys Pearsall Smith, was effectively doomed to failure when, during an infamous bicycle ride, he suddenly realized he was no longer in love with her – although the couple did not divorce for twenty years.

His second marriage, to Dora Black, resulted in two children. Anxious to avoid the religious and nationalistic propaganda pervading traditional education, the couple founded a progressive school called Beacon Hill, to educate their own children, and others. Beacon Hill never achieved the fame of A.S. Neill’s Summerhill, but it made its mark in educational circles nonetheless.

Russell’s marriage to Dora was an open one: both had numerous affairs, and Dora bore two children with another man. These children were a critical factor in the failure of this marriage. Russell was intensely proud of his aristocratic heritage, and he hated the idea of his lineage being continued by a child who wasn’t a real Russell!

Russell’s third wife, Patricia (‘Peter’) Spence, was thirty-eight years his junior, and had been a governess to his children during his tumultuous second marriage. This marriage produced a third child, but it also ended badly.

Only Russell’s fourth marriage, to a longstanding American friend named Edith Finch, proved lasting. Russell began his autobiography with a very touching poem dedicated to her.

Russell’s four marriages did not exhaust his passionate search for love. He had numerous affairs, both during and in-between his various marriages. Among his more famous lovers were Lady Ottoline Morrell, whose salon was attended by many leading writers and artists of her day; Lady Constance Malleson, actress and writer, who used the stage-name ‘Colette O’Neil’; and T.S. Eliot’s wife, Vivienne.

Russell’s Quest For Peace

But even the quest for certainty and an active love life weren’t the only outlets for Russell’s passion. He also found time to demonstrate “unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind.” As a child, his grandmother gave him a Bible inscribed with her favorite verses, including Exodus 23:2: “Thou shalt not follow a multitude to do evil.” It was a principle that Russell would have opportunities to abide by many times in his life.

Although Russell was politically engaged throughout his adult life, it was during World War I that he first had the chance to resist the multitude. He became extremely active in anti-war work, focusing his energies on supporting the conscientious objectors who resisted being drawn into Britain’s war effort. Even Will Durant acknowledged that during World War I, “the Bertrand Russell who had lain so long buried and mute under the weight of logic and mathematics and epistemology, suddenly burst forth, like a liberated flame, and the world was shocked to find that this slim and anemic-looking professor was a man of infinite courage, and a passionate lover of humanity” (The Story of Philosophy, pp.523-524). I would argue that the passion was there all along, even if Durant did not see it. Russell paid a considerable price for his anti-war efforts, however. He lost his position at Cambridge; alienated numerous friends, notably his mentor, Alfred North Whitehead, whose son perished fighting in the war; he was arrested twice; and he spent six months in prison.

Politically Russell was on the Left, but he was never a Communist. After World War I ended, he paid a visit to the newly-formed Soviet Union, during which he had a personal audience with Lenin. After this visit, he wrote a highly critical book, The Practice and Theory of Bolshevism (1920), which alienated him from many left-wing friends star-struck by the new social experiment in Russia. He remained a staunch anti-Communist throughout his adult life.

In the 1950s Russell became more and more involved with the movement against the atomic bomb. Unlike many peace activists, Russell did not believe it was enough to ‘Ban the Bomb’. Instead, he thought that in the atomic age, it was war itself that must be abolished. He advanced this position through a variety of activities, through his famous ‘Man’s Peril’ radio broadcast at Christmas 1954; through the release of the Russell-Einstein Manifesto in 1955 and the founding of the Pugwash Conferences in 1957 [see later in this issue, Ed.]; through his public exchange of letters with Nikita Khrushchev and John Foster Dulles in 1957-1958; through his book Common Sense and Nuclear Warfar e (1959); and through his activism with the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and with the Committee of 100. This led to his second jail term, for civil disobedience, at the age of 89. How many philosophers can claim a criminal record at that age?

Russell’s Quest With Zest

In a little book called The Conquest of Happiness (1910), Russell argued for the importance of ‘zest’, which he pronounced “the most universal and distinctive mark of happy men.” Certainly Russell himself had a zest for life, which he amply demonstrated through his three great passions.

Russell’s way of life may not be for everyone, but it certainly proves that reason and passion can coexist inside a great man leading a great life.

Bertrand Russell ‘a formula with legs’? Hardly!

© Dr Peter Stone 2017

Peter Stone is an assistant professor of political science at Trinity College Dublin.

• This article contains excerpts from ‘Introduction: Who Was Bertrand Russell?’ in Bertrand Russell, Public Intellectual (Tiger Bark Press, 2016), edited by Tim Madigan and Peter Stone. Readers interested in Russell are encouraged to learn more about him through this book.


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