A Conversation with Bertrand Russell

Bertrand Russell
Bertrand Russell

A Life Well Lived

We all need perspective – on our lives and the world around us. Join us as we listen to philosopher Bertrand Russell, learning from the past and how he used history in his own thinking about humanity.

Bertrand Arthur William Russell, 3rd Earl Russell, was born on 18 May 1872 and passed away on the 2nd February 1970. During his lifetime his achievements were vast but his take on life was extraordinary.

In this colourized film philosopher and classicist, Bertrand Russell talks about the time when his grandfather met Napoleon.

Hearing from people who lived through such world-historical events can give us needed perspective if they’re still living and willing to talk or if we have access to footage like the video we are presenting.

It offers a sense that the apocalyptic dread we often feel in the face of our own crises – climate, virus, war, the seeming end of democratic institutions – was also acutely felt, and often with as much good reason, by those who lived a generation or two before us. And yet, they survived — or did so long enough to make children and grandchildren.

Russell’s significant social influence stems from three main sources: his long-standing social activism, his many writings on the social and political issues of his day as well as on more theoretical concerns, and his popularizations of numerous technical writings in philosophy and the natural sciences.

Naturally enough, Russell saw a link between education in this broad sense and social progress. As he put it, “Education is the key to the new world” (1926, 83). Partly this is due to our need to understand nature, but equally important is our need to understand each other:

The thing, above all, that a teacher should endeavor to produce in his pupils, if democracy is to survive, is the kind of tolerance that springs from an endeavor to understand those who are different from ourselves. It is perhaps a natural human impulse to view with horror and disgust all manners and customs different from those to which we are used. Ants and savages put strangers to death. And those who have never traveled either physically or mentally find it difficult to tolerate the queer ways and outlandish beliefs of other nations and other times, other sects and other political parties. This kind of ignorant intolerance is the antithesis of a civilized outlook, and is one of the gravest dangers to which our overcrowded world is exposed. (1950, 121)

They saw global catastrophes pass and change and sometimes witnessed turns of fortune that brought empires to their knees.”

Russell was, prior to being a socialist, a Georgist. In 1914 he wrote to Lady Ottoline Morrell saying “It is clear the Socialists are the hope of the world”. Russell expressed support for guild socialism. He was also an admirer of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Eduard Bernstein.

Russell expressed great hope in “the Communist experiment.” However, when he visited the Soviet Union and met Vladimir Lenin in 1920, he was unimpressed with the system in place.

On his return, he wrote a critical tract, The Practice and Theory of Bolshevism. He was “infinitely unhappy in this atmosphere—stifled by its utilitarianism, its indifference to love and beauty and the life of impulse.” Although critical of its implementation in Soviet Russia, he still believed “that Communism is necessary to the world.” He believed Lenin to be similar to a religious zealot, cold and possessing “no love of liberty” and a kind of “latter-day Cromwell”.

Bertrand Arthur William Russell was born at Trelleck on 18th May, 1872. His parents were Viscount Amberley and Katherine, daughter of 2nd Baron Stanley of Alderley. At the age of three, he was left an orphan.

His father had wished him to be brought up as an agnostic; to avoid this he was made a ward of Court, and brought up by his grandmother. Instead of being sent to school, he was taught by governesses and tutors, and thus acquired a perfect knowledge of French and German.

In 1890 he went into residence at Trinity College, Cambridge, and after being a very high Wrangler and obtaining a First Class with distinction in philosophy he was elected a fellow of his college in 1895. But he had already left Cambridge in the summer of 1894 and for some months was attaché at the British embassy at Paris.

In December 1894 he married Miss Alys Pearsall Smith. After spending some months in Berlin studying social democracy, they went to live near Haslemere, where he devoted his time to the study of philosophy. In 1900 he visited the Mathematical Congress at Paris. He was impressed with the ability of the Italian mathematician Peano and his pupils, and immediately studied Peano’s works. In 1903 he wrote his first important book, The Principles of Mathematics, and with his friend, Dr Alfred Whitehead proceeded to develop and extend the mathematical logic of Peano and Frege. From time to time he abandoned philosophy for politics.

In 1910 he was appointed lecturer at Trinity College. After the first World War broke out, he took an active part in the No Conscription fellowship and was fined £100 as the author of a leaflet criticising a sentence of two years on a conscientious objector.

His college deprived him of his lectureship in 1916. He was offered a post at Harvard University but was refused a passport. He intended to give a course of lectures (afterwards published in America as Political Ideals, 1918) but was prevented by the military authorities. In 1918 he was sentenced to six months’ imprisonment for a pacifistic article he had written in the Tribunal. His Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy (1919) was written in prison. His Analysis of Mind (1921) was the outcome of some lectures he gave in London, which were organised by a few friends who got up a subscription for the purpose.

In 1920 Russell paid a short visit to Russia to study the conditions of Bolshevism on the spot.

In the autumn of the same year, he went to China to lecture on philosophy at the Peking university. On his return in Sept. 1921, having been divorced by his first wife, he married Miss Dora Black. They lived for six years in Chelsea during the winter months and spent the summers near Lands End.

In 1927 he and his wife started a school for young children, which they carried on until 1932. He succeeded to the earldom in 1931. He was divorced by his second wife in 1935 and the following year married Patricia Helen Spence.

In 1938 he went to the United States and during the next years taught at many of the country’s leading universities. In 1940 he was involved in legal proceedings when his right to teach philosophy at the College of the City of New York was questioned because of his views on morality.

When his appointment to the college faculty was cancelled, he accepted a five-year contract as a lecturer for the Barnes Foundation, Merion, Pa., but the cancellation of this contract was announced in Jan. 1943 by Albert C. Barnes, director of the foundation.

Russell was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1908 and re-elected a fellow of Trinity College in 1944. He was awarded the Sylvester medal of the Royal Society, in 1934, the de Morgan medal of the London Mathematical Society in the same year, and the Nobel Prize for Literature, in 1950.

In a paper “Logical Atomism” (Contemporary British Philosophy. Personal Statements, First series. Lond. 1924) Russell exposed his views on his philosophy, preceded by a few words on historical development.

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