A wise man. He was interested in everything.

His intellectual curiosity knew no limits: he studied mathematics, physics and human science in Cambridge, and is remembered and respected for his work as a mathematician, thinker and philosopher.

One of his main traits was his critic activity, that put him in jail in two occasions. Russell was against the nuclear arms race and the use of violence to solve politic conflicts, and he presided an international tribunal that judged Vietnam's crime wars (known as the Russell Tribunal).

His philosophical writings are clear and always lucid and his short essays, ingenious and full of irony and intellectual rigor. For me, it has been a master.

Some of my favourite Bertrand Russell books (that make very good node titles):

1872-1970
Little known fact: Bertrand Russell, in 1950, won the Nobel Prize for Literature. At the time, he had never published a work of fiction - he went on to publish serveral short stories. His stories are often humorous, somewhat dark, and mostly blatantly anti-religious (while still being really funny and not bombastic).

He was also responsible for Russell's Paradox, which has been popularized as the Barber Paradox. He worked with Alfred North Whitehead on the Principia Mathematica to try to defeat it. Godel, however, showed that it could not be rooted out of mathematics entirely.

Russell also opposed marital fidelity - he was a strong believer in what is now called "Free Love", well before it was cool. This didn't stop him from marrying 4 times.

Quotes providing examples of his humor:
  • "Work is of two kinds: first, altering the position of matter at or near the earth's surface relative to other matter; second, telling other people to do so."
  • "Thus mathematics may be defined as the subject in which we never know what we are talking about, nor whether what we are saying is true."
Quotes about religion:
  • "What is wanted is not the will to believe, but the will to find out, which is the exact opposite." (from "Skeptical Essays", 1928)

On mathematics:
  • "Mathematics, rightly viewed, possesses not only truth but supreme beauty -- a beauty cold and austere, like that of a sculpture, without appeal to any part of our weaker nature, without the gorgeous trapping of painting or music, yet sublimely pure, and capable of a stern perfection such as only the greatest art can show. The true spirit of delight, the exaltation, the sense of being more than man, which is the touchstone of the highest excellence, is to be found in mathematics as surely as in poetry."
On people and opinion:
  • "The fact that an opinion has been widely held is no evidence that it is not utterly absurd; indeed, in view of the silliness of the majority of mankind, a widespread belief is more often likely to be foolish than sensible." (from "Marriage and Morals", 1929)
  • "The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, but wiser people so full of doubts."
  • "It has been said that man is a rational animal. All my life I have been searching for evidence which could support this."
  • "If fifty million people say a foolish thing, it's still a foolish thing."
A wonderful Bertrand Russell anecdote (there are many) that I heard from Murray Kiteley, professor emeritus at Smith College:

When Russell was three years old, his aunt took him to the seashore. After exploring the beach by himself for some time, he returned to his aunt with a determined look on his face. "Auntie, do barnacles think?" he asked.

"I don't know, Bertie," she replied.

Said Bertie: "Well, you must learn."

John Maynard Keynes on Bertrand Russell:


“Bertie held two ludicrously incompatible beliefs: on the one hand he believed that all the problems of the world stemmed from conducting human affairs in a most irrational way; on the other hand that the solution was simple, since all we had to do was to behave rationally.”

Early on in his career, Bertrand Russell was not the peacenik he later became.

He was a vocal advocate of an American pre-emptive strike (involving the newest, most thorough devices available: big nuclear bombs) against defenceless pre-nuclear Russia. This may seem like a rash idea; Russell, being a mathematician, considered it a Prisoner's Dilemma. Waiting for Russia to develop the technology would level the playing field.

There is one thing and only one which could save the world [from Stalin's expantionist Russia], and that is a thing which I should not dream of advocating. It is, that America should make war on Russia during the next two years, and establish a world empire by means of the atomic bomb. This will not be done.

--Bertrand Russell, The Glasgow Forward, 1945

It does makes some kind of moral sense, if you overlook the fact that Russia would have changed from a bunch of happy families into a collection of smouldering craters.

Luckily, anyone important enough to do anything about it tucked Russell's letters neatly away for later consideration in the circular file.


Source: Prisoner's Dilemma by William Poundstone, 1992

"The good life is one inspired by love and guided by knowledge."

From "What I Believe" (written 1925, cited as evidence in the 1940 hearings that he was unfit to teach at City College of New York)

Probably one of the most inspiring ideas from that good man's head.

When first the opposition of fact and ideal grows fully visible, a spirit of fiery revolt, of fierce hatred of the gods, seems necessary to the assertion of freedom. To defy with Promethean constancy a hostile universe, to keep its evil always in view, always actively hated, to refuse no pain that the malice of Power can invent, appears to be the duty of all who will not bow before the inevitable. But indignation is still a bondage, for it compels our thoughts to be occupied with an evil world; and in the fierceness of desire from which rebellion springs there is a kind of self-assertion which it is necessary for the wise to overcome. Indignation is a submission of our thoughts, but not of our desires; the Stoic freedom in which wisdom consists is found in the submission of our desires, but not of our thoughts. From the submission of our desires springs the virtue of resignation; from the freedom of our thoughts springs the whole world of art and philosophy, and the vision of beauty by which, at last, we half reconquer the reluctant world. But the vision of beauty is possible only to unfettered contemplation, to thoughts not weighted by the load of eager wishes; and thus Freedom comes only to those who no longer ask of life that it shall yield them any of those personal goods that are subject to the mutations of Time.

-- Bertrand Russell, A Free Man's Worship

Bertrand A.W. (Arthur William) Russell. His grandfather was Lord John Russell, who had twice served as Prime Minister under Queen Victoria. Born 1872 in Ravenscroft, Trelleck, Monmouthshire, Wales; died 2 Feb 1970 in Penrhyndeudraeth, Merioneth, Wales. To poorly echo the comments of other noders, he was a scientist, a mathematician, and a philosopher. What an odd combination. Russell was married three times (some information states four): to Alys Pearsall Smith (1894), Dora Black (1921), and Patricia (Peter) Helen Spence (1936). He was "notorious for his many affairs".

He is primarily of interest due to deep connections to both the philosophical and mathematical fields. He was occassionally described as a man with very deep conflicts between his logical self and his spiritual and thought processes. It is this very intertwingularity which most people find so fascinating about him. There is a Bertrand Russell Society dedicated to his study.

Russell was educated at Trinity College, Cambridge (his primary education was private). He earned first-class degrees in both mathematics and moral sciences, and was elected to the Royal Society in 1908. He was convicted for anti-war activities in 1916, and convicted again two years later and received six months in prison. He ran unsuccessfully for parliament three times in England in 1907, 1922, and 1923. He taught in the United States in the late 1930s, and was offered a teaching appointment at City College, New York City, but the appointment was revoked in 1940. In 1949 he was awarded the Order of Merit.

He is the author of over 4,300 works, according to A Bibliography of Bertrand Russell, ISBN 041511644-9. Of course, this includes speeches, columns, and other important information. Interesting works include:

The Bertrand Russell Archives at McMaster University suggest that Russell had correspondence with over 29,000 individuals. He is possibly one of the most prolific writers in human history. There are, of course, many more important works you should read. He received the Nobel Prize for literature in 1950, He is known perhaps most among mathematicians for his discovery of Russell's paradox, but also for his contributions to logical thought and logicism, specifically in regards to contemporary formal logic. He co-authored the Principia Mathematica with Alfred North Whitehead, Russell also had strong anti-war and anti-nuclear sentiments. He, with Albert Einstein, released a manifesto in 1955, calling for the curtailment of nuclear weapons. He was a prime organizer of the first Pugwash Conference, which was an event for scientists concerned about the proliferation of nuclear weapons. He was the president and founder of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in 1958, and was once again imprisoned (briefly) in 1961. He went on to keep writing, speaking, and teaching.

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