What people get wrong about Bertrand Russell

Contrary to received wisdom his later work was of immense value

December 31, 2019
28 november 1957
28 november 1957

In philosophical circles, there are two Bertrand Russells, only one of whom died 50 years ago. The first is the short-lived genius philosopher of 1897-1913, whose groundbreaking work on logic shaped the analytic tradition which dominated Anglo-American philosophy during the 20th century. The second is the longer-lived public intellectual and campaigner of 1914-1970, known to a wider audience for his popular books such as Why I Am Not a Christian, Marriage and Morals and A History of Western Philosophy.

The public may have preferred the second Russell but many philosophers see this iteration as a sell-out who betrayed the first. This view is best reflected in Ray Monk’s exhaustive biography. The first volume, which went up to 1921, was almost universally acclaimed, but some (unfairly) condemned the second as a hatchet-job. It was as though Monk had become exasperated by his subject.

Monk admired the logician Russell who “supports his views with rigorous and sophisticated arguments, and deals with objections carefully and respectfully.” But he despaired that in the popular political writings that dominated the second half of Russell’s life, “these qualities are absent, replaced with empty rhetoric, blind dogmatism and a cavalier refusal to take the views of his opponents seriously.” In Monk’s view, Russell “abandoned a subject of which he was one of the greatest practitioners since Aristotle in favour of one to which he had very little of any value to contribute.”

Monk’s assessment has become orthodoxy among professional philosophers. But although it is true that Russell’s political writings were often naive and simplistic, so is the neat distinction between the early philosopher and the later hack. Russell changed tack because his work in logic reached the end of the line and he thought he had a greater contribution to make as a public intellectual. History has vindicated him: much of his popular writing stands the test of time better than his academic work.

For all its ingenuity, Russell’s early philosophical project ended in failure. His three-volume Principia Mathematica, written with Alfred North Whitehead, was an attempt to establish a “proof that all pure mathematics deals exclusively with concepts definable in terms of a very small number of fundamental concepts, and that all its propositions are deducible from a very small number of fundamental logical principles.” This position became known as logicism, the view that all of mathematics is reducible to logic.

The publication of Gödel’s incompleteness theorem in 1931 buried logicism for good. But even without that decisive refutation, the limitations of a rigidly logic-based philosophy had already become apparent. For instance, Russell’s protégé Wittgenstein had been spotting flaws in Russell’s formal work for years.

It was not, then, that Russell gave up on “serious philosophy” too early but that he realised he had taken it as far as he could. When he was writing The Problems of Philosophy in 1911—his first “shilling shocker” as he called his popular works—he told his lover Ottoline Morrell that “what remains for me to do in philosophy (I mean technical philosophy) does not seem to me of first-rate importance.” Perhaps this view was bolstered by the recognition that such work is read by few and understood by even fewer. In 1959 Russell wrote that “I used to know of only six people who had read the later parts of the book [Principia Mathematica].”

Arguably Russell saw the limitations of “technical philosophy” more clearly than those who thought of themselves as following in his footsteps. The analytic tradition has produced some great work but too many of its practitioners have conflated rigour with technical argument. I would wager that there is not a single major work of political or moral philosophy which depends on a formal logical proof. What endures of Russell’s logic is of interest only in logic. If Russell wanted to address the problems of real life, he had to leave behind the symbols and numbers that had so captivated him in his youth.

Much of the popular work that followed was of the highest quality. His Problems of Philosophy introduced innumerable readers to the subject, as did his AHistory of Western Philosophy, the standard such historical texts for decades. (It also had the rare honesty to advertise that it was indeed restricted to western thought.)

I’m one of many atheists who cite Why I Am Not a Christian as a formative text. Today, we might think that Russell treated religious belief too literally and did not consider the possibility that it is better understood as a form of life than a set of proto-scientific doctrines. But he was simply taking on the religion of his time, which was dominated by literal clerics not postmodern theologians. Furthermore, his atheism was far less dogmatic than certain more recent versions. Indeed, he insisted he was technically an agnostic, albeit of the kind that took the Christian God’s existence as seriously as he did that of Zeus.

His writings on sexual ethics also stand up surprisingly well. Much of what he once controversially advocated is now common sense, such as the need for honest sex education and the idea that “It seems absurd to ask people to enter upon a relation intended to be lifelong, without any previous knowledge as to their sexual compatibility.” Russell had many lovers, but he was no libertine. He believed that “civilized people cannot fully satisfy their sexual instinct without love.”

To give just one more example of how sensible and acute Russell could be, consider his judgment that there is now “too much emphasis upon competitive success as the main source of happiness” and that once “the competitive habit of mind” becomes established, it “easily invades regions to which it does not belong.”

When Russell died, many obituarists reached for his remark that “Three passions, simple but strong, have governed my life: the longing for love, the search for knowledge and unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind.” The New York Times ruefully noted that his longing for love was only satisfied in his 80s with marriage to his fourth wife, Edith; that his pity for humankind remained unbearable; and that of his search for knowledge, he himself had said “a little of this, but not much, I have achieved.”

If we look to the full completion of goals and ambitions as the mark of success, Russell’s life was a heroic failure. But if achievement means living a life according to your passions and values, Russell’s life was a glorious success.

Correction: This piece originally stated that Gödel’s incompleteness theorem was published in 1944