Bertrand A. W. Russell

Bertrand A. W. Russell (1872-1970)

Bertrand A. W. Russell (1872-1970), third Earl Russell, was a Welsh mathematician, logician, philosopher, pacifist and public intellectual. He made substantial contributions in mathematics, logic, set theory and various areas of analytic philosophy. Among his major works was a book he wrote with his former teacher, A. N. Whitehead, entitled Principia Mathematica. This book was a milestone in the development of classical logic and a major attempt to reduce the whole of mathematics to logic.


Bertrand Russell was also an essayist, historian and winner of the 1950 Nobel Prize for literature for championing “humanitarian ideals and freedom of thought”. When Russell was eleven years old, his brother introduced him to the work of the Greek mathematician Euclid, which he described as “one of the greatest events of my life, as dazzling as a first love”. However, his lifelong work in mathematics was matched by his social and political concerns for peace and freedom of speech.


Born to a British aristocratic family, one with highly unorthodox overtones, including an atheist father and a feminist grandmother, he became known for his keen interests in political and social theory. He avidly read and critically studied many classical Greek works, especially all of Plato’s works, including the “Republic”. At various stages in Russell’s life, he considered himself to be a liberal, a socialist and a pacifist. During World War One, Russell was dismissed from Trinity College for his pacifist activities. In 1917, he played a significant role in the “Leeds Convention”, a gathering of a thousand “anti-war socialists”, and was later convicted and imprisoned for publicly protesting the entry of the United Kingdom into the war.   


Russell was enthusiastically supported by his fellow faculty members, and this helped to reinstate him at the university in 1919, but he resigned shortly afterwards to devote himself to exploring communism in Russia and China. In 1920, he visited Lenin in Russia and spent an hour with him, and later said he regarded him as a great man who fought for social justice in his country.


In the years before the onset of World War Two, Russell taught the science of power at the London School of Economics and Philosophy at the University of Chicago and at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). Russell opposed the rearming of Britain against Nazi Germany; however, he concluded that Hitler would be a permanent threat to democracy and by 1943, he declared that war was always a great evil, but in some particularly extreme cases, it may be the lesser of two evils.


By the end of the Second World War, he wrote his famous “History of Western Philosophy”. Furthermore, Russell played a substantial role in diffusing the Cuban Missile Crisis during October of 1962 when Soviet Russia deployed nuclear missiles in Cuba after it feared that the United States would invade Cuba, following the successful revolution by Fidel Castro in 1959, after he overthrew a dictatorship that reigned as the government between 1952 and 1959.


In an attempt to calm the increasing tensions between the United States and Soviet Russia, Russell wrote to Chairman Khrushchev and received assurances from him that Russia would not make reckless decisions in regard to the crisis. Bertrand Russell therefore devoted considerable time and energy to the fight for disarmament and to prevent the possibility of a nuclear war. In later life, Russell was a passionate anti-war advocate and campaigner for global nuclear disarmament. Russell was often involved in mass demonstrations in extreme old age and gained admiration from a new generation of anti-war demonstrators.


Sadly, the British judiciary system took the extraordinary step of sentencing the 89-year-old Russell to a second period of imprisonment. When he died in 1970, Russell was far better known for his anti-war campaigns than as a philosopher of mathematics. However, Russell will be remembered as both a great intellectual thinker and a moral philosopher for the common good of humanity and world peace.


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