Bertrand Russell

Bertrand Russell

Bertrand Russell

Last updated: 15 December 2008

One the giants of 20th century thinking, Bertrand Russell was a hugely influential philosopher, historian and social commentator.

Bertrand Arthur William Russell was born on 18 May 1872, at Ravenscroft (now Cleddon Hall) in Trellech, Monmouthshire.

He was born into nobility; his paternal grandfather, John Russell, the first Earl Russell, was the second son of John Russell, 6th Duke of Bedford. The Russell family had risen to prominence during the time of the Tudor dynasty, and became one of the leading Whig families.

Bertrand Russell's mother Katherine Louisa was the daughter of the second Baron Stanley of Alderley, and was the sister of the Countess of Carlisle. His father was Viscount Amberley, and his godfather was the utilitarian philosopher John Stuart Mill.

After his mother, sister Rachel and father died between 1874 and 1876, Bertrand and his elder brother Frank were sent to live with their grandparents at Pembroke Lodge in Richmond Park. Their grandfather died two years later, leaving the Countess Russell to play a dominant role in the children's upbringing.

Russell was educated at home by a number of tutors. He won a scholarship to study mathematics at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he commenced his studies in 1890. He graduated three years later, and was awarded a fellowship in philosophy in 1895.

In December 1894 he married Alys Pearsall Smith, whom he had first met as a 17-year-old. Although the couple fell out of love in 1901, they didn't divorce until 1921 after a lengthy separation.

Russell's first published work was a political study from 1896 titled German Social Democracy. He continued writing and teaching, and became a member of a number of influential societies and organisations. In 1908 he became a fellow of the Royal Society.

It was with the publication of the first volume of Principia Mathematica in 1910 that Russell became world famous. The following year he forged a close friendship with Austrian philosopher and logician Ludwig Wittgenstein, whose writing and academic development he encouraged.

During World War One Russell became involved in pacifist activities, and in 1916 he was dismissed from Trinity College under the Defence of the Realm Act.

In August 1920 Russell travelled to Russia, where he met Lenon. He also lectured on philosophy in Beijing, where he became gravely ill with pneumonia.

Russell was joined in China by his lover Dora Black. By the time they returned to Britain in August 1921 she was six months pregnant, and Russell hastily divorced Alys in order to marry her. He and Dora had two children together: John Conrad Russell, 4th Earl Russell (born November 1921) and Katharine Jane Russell (born December 1923).

During this time Russell wrote a series of popular books on physics, ethics, and education, including Russell wrote several popular science books, including The ABC Of Atoms (1923) and The ABC Of Relativity (1925). With Dora he founded the experimental Beacon Hill School in 1927.

After his brother Frank died in 1931, Bertrand Russell became the 3rd Earl Russell. The following year he separated from Dora; the couple later divorced, and in January 1936 he married his third wife, Patricia 'Peter' Spence. They had one son, Conrad Sebastian Robert Russell, but divorced in 1952. The same year he married his fourth wife, Edith Finch; the couple remained together until Russell's death in 1970.

Bertrand Russell taught at the universities of Chicago and California after World War Two, though his subsequent appointment as professor at New York's City College was annulled after his controversial opinions on morality were judged to make him unfit to teach. He gave a series of lectures to the Barnes Foundation on the history of philosophy before returning to Trinity College, Cambridge in 1944.

During the 1940s and 1950s Russell took part in a number of broadcasts for the BBC, discussing a range of contemporary and philosophical issues. He became widely in demand as a speaker and writer, and in 1945 his book A History Of Western Philosophy became a best-seller. A founder of what was later termed analytic philosophy, he was particularly concerned with the use of language, and argued that clarity of expression was a virtue.

In June 1949 Russell was awarded the Order of Merit in the King George VI's birthday honours, and the following year was given the Nobel Prize for Literature. In 1963 he was the first recipient of the Jerusalem Prize, for writers concerned with the freedom of the individual in society.

Russell continued to pursue a number of political activities throughout the 1960s, notably in opposition to nuclear weapons and the Vietnam war. The 1955 Russell-Einstein Manifesto called for nuclear disarmament and was signed by 11 prominent scientists and intellectuals.

The first part of his three-volume autobiography was published in 1967, and was completed in the two consecutive years. Despite physical frailty he continued his political activities, protesting to a number of world leaders over acts he objected to. These included the support of a war crimes commission to investigate allegations of US torture in South Vietnam, and a condemnation of Israel's 1967 occupation of Palestinian territory.

Bertrand Russell died of influenza on 2 February 1970 at his home, Plas Penrhyn, in Penrhyndeudraeth, Merionethshire, Wales. He was cremated at Colwyn Bay three days later. His ashes were scattered over the Welsh mountains later that year.

Selected bibliography

  • German Social Democracy (1896)
  • A Critical Exposition Of The Philosophy Of Leibniz (1900)
  • The Principles Of Mathematics (1903)
  • Philosophical Essays (1910)
  • Principia Mathematica, with Alfred North Whitehead (1910-1913)
  • The Problems Of Philosophy (1912)
  • Principles Of Social Reconstruction (1916)
  • Political Ideals (1917)
  • Mysticism And Logic And Other Essays (1918)
  • Introduction To Mathematical Philosophy (1919)
  • The Practice And Theory Of Bolshevism (1920)
  • The Analysis Of Mind (1921)
  • The Prospects Of Industrial Civilization (1923)
  • The ABC Of Atoms (1923)
  • The ABC Of Relativity (1925)
  • What I Believe (1925)
  • The Analysis Of Matter (1927)
  • Why I Am Not A Christian (1927)
  • Marriage And Morals (1929)
  • The Conquest Of Happiness (1930)
  • The Scientific Outlook (1931)
  • Religion And Science (1935)
  • Which Way To Peace? (1936)
  • A History Of Western Philosophy (1946)
  • New Hopes For A Changing World (1951)
  • The Impact Of Science On Society (1952)
  • Human Society In Ethics And Politics (1954)
  • Logic and Knowledge: Essays 1901-1950 (1956)
  • Understanding History And Other Essays (1958)
  • Common Sense And Nuclear Warfare (1959)
  • My Philosophical Development (1959)
  • Has Man A Future? (1961)
  • Essays In Skepticism (1963)
  • On The Philosophy Of Science (1965)
  • War Crimes In Vietnam (1967)
  • The Autobiography Of Bertrand Russell (1967-9)

BBC Radio 4

Pages from an open book

Open Book

The best new books, interviews and lost masterpieces.

BBC navigation

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.