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Reflections: Bertrand Russell

4 September 2017

Bertrand Arthur William Russell (1872–1970) was a man of many talents. Born into an aristocratic British family, Russell not only explored mathematics, history and philosophy (especially analytical philosophy and logic) but also became an eminent writer. He also won the Nobel Prize.

Russell studied at Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1890, distinguishing himself in mathematics and philosophy early on.

His career as a writer began with German Social Democracy, a study in politics, which he went on to teach at the London School of Economics. Russell eventually returned to Trinity College to pursue the study of the foundations of mathematics there and, in 1903, published The Principles of Mathematics, in essence a theory of logicism premised on the similarities between mathematics and logic.

Bertrand Russell is generally credited with being one of the founders of analytical philosophy and wrote on most major areas of the subject. He also authored over 70 books and allegedly thousands of essays on a variety of topics. He was particularly prolific in the field of metaphysics and the logic and philosophy of mathematics, as well as the philosophy of language, ethics and epistemology.

His 1948 book, A History of Western Philosophy, was a huge commercial hit and remains in print to this day. The work is divided into three books, each of which is subdivided into chapters that deal with a single philosopher, school of philosophy, or period, specifically ancient philosophy, Catholic Philosophy, and modern philosophy.

In 1950, Russell was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature “in recognition of his varied and significant writings in which he champions humanitarian ideals and freedom of thought”. He published his three-volume autobiography between 1967 and 1969.

Russell remained politically and socially active throughout his life. During World War I, he was one of the few people to engage in active pacifist activities, which resulted in a term of imprisonment. He used this time to write Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy. During World War II, he opposed rearmament against Nazi Germany, though he later changed his views. In 1961, at the age of 89, he was jailed for seven days for ‘breach of the peace’ after participating an in anti-nuclear demonstration in London.

He died in 1970 at the age of 97. Throughout his lifetime Russell argued for a ‘scientific society’ with population control that would be conflict free and in which prosperity would be shared. To achieve this, he suggested the establishment of a “single supreme world government” with global peacekeeping capabilities, steadfastly holding on to the belief that cooperation would be man’s redeeming factor.