About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Bertrand Russell

Now that I am officially a philosopher (i.e., my salary is going to be paid by a philosophy, instead of a biology, department), I can indulge full time in reading philosophy without feeling guilty. I haven’t mastered the skill (of not feeling guilty) yet, but I’m working on it. This is also why I’m starting an occasional series of blog posts devoted to individual philosophers, picked among those that strike my fancy for one reason or another. Obviously, a blog post is not the appropriate venue for even a superficial look at the entire body of work of a major philosopher, so what I’ll do instead is to briefly comment on a number of major themes relevant to each particular case, and hope to stimulate people to read more about that philosopher. We begin with the 20th century British logician and moral theorist Bertrand Russell.

Russell was the first philosopher I ever read, beginning when I was in high school, and arguably the guy that got first got me into philosophy. It was one of those long and boring Sunday afternoons in my father’s house in Rome, which we spent listening to a radio broadcast of the soccer games of the day. I was scanning one of my father’s collections of books with the same cover, one of those things that people who don’t read, for some reason (guilt? shame?), like to have on their shelves so that they can pretend to have some interest in Culture, even though said books lie virgin on the bookcase and their owner couldn’t tell you the difference between Homer and Shakespeare if he heard a few lines of The Odyssey contrasted with excerpts from Hamlet.

At any rate, I picked up Russell’s autobiography, having vaguely heard the name before. I couldn’t put the damn thing down, and kept reading it as if it were a ravishing novel (which in a non-fictional sense, it is). After that I moved to Why I am Not a Christian, another hugely influential book in my youth, and so on with several others by Russell. I was hooked, and thirty years later I am about to become a real philosopher in the same department where the Bertrand Russell Society Quarterly is produced. But enough about me, let’s talk about Bertie.

Russell’s life was packed with the kind of events that fill several other people’s lifetimes, partly because he lived a very long existence (he died at age 98), but mostly because the man had an incredible amount of physical and mental energy. He married four times, wrote an astounding number of influential books and articles about philosophy, got in trouble with the law several times for his anti-war sentiments, and was denied an appointment at the City University of New York (where I am going in the Fall) because a judge thought that Russell’s opinions as expressed in his Marriage and Morals made him “morally unfit” to teach in American universities.

Russell’s chief interest in philosophy was in logic and the philosophy of mathematics, and his primary achievement in that field is the monumental Principia Mathematica, co-written with Alfred North Withehead. His project was to establish mathematics on entirely self-sufficient logical foundations, a project that eventually failed and was later demonstrated by people like Kurt Godel (he of “incompleteness theorem” fame) to be impossible in principle. Russell’s work was foundational and highly influential nonetheless. Russell is also commonly acknowledged as the father of what today is known as “analytic” philosophy (as opposed to the other major contemporary branch, so-called “continental” philosophy). The idea is that philosophy should be concerned with clarifying the use of language, eliminate confusion and get rid of incoherent or meaningless propositions (particularly abundant in certain writings on metaphysics).

Frankly, however, the aspects of Russell’s thought that I consider most relevant still to people today concern his politics and his writings on morality. Unlike many progressives during his lifetime, Russell recognized early on that the communist regime of the Soviet Union was a disaster for its citizens and for humanity at large, and was accordingly publicly very critical of it. In a typical fashion, here is how he managed to attack the Soviet revolution and the Catholic Church in one paragraph:

“One who believes as I do, that free intellect is the chief engine of human progress, cannot but be fundamentally opposed to Bolshevism as much as to the Church of Rome. The hopes which inspire communism are, in the main, as admirable as those instilled by the Sermon on the Mount, but they are held as fanatically and are as likely to do as much harm.”

Russell also clearly saw the threat of Nazism ahead of many others, and accordingly thought that World War II (unlike WWI) was necessary and justified. For a time he had high hopes about the role of the United States as a positive force in international governance, but those hopes were dashed by Kennedy’s handling of the Cuban missile crisis first and by the Vietnam war later. He co-signed a document with Einstein in 1955 that led to the first Pugwash Conference on Science and World Affairs a couple of years later. Shortly thereafter he also became the first president of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (from which he eventually resigned because the organization did not support the sort of civil disobedience for which Russell was arrested in 1961).

The man had guts, and had no qualms in fighting for, not just writing about, his ideas on a just and peaceful society. Accordingly, Russell wrote forcefully on a variety of other ethical issues, favoring women’s right to vote, access to birth control, and rights for homosexuals, to mention a few. In other words, he was (and still is) the conservative bigot’s ultimate nightmare. You’ve got to love the man.

Let me leave you with one of my favorite quotes from Bertie, concerning the issue of death and the zest for life:

“I believe that when I die I shall rot, and nothing of my ego will survive. I am not young, and I love life. But I scorn to shiver with terror at the thought of annihilation. Happiness is nonetheless true happiness because it must come to an end, nor do thought and love lose their value because they are not everlasting.”


  1. You (and readers of this blog) might enjoy this 3 part interview with Russell on youtube (I'm linking part 1):

  2. What about Kennedy's handling of the Cuban missile crisis led to Russell's objection?

  3. Thanks for the article, but I couldn't help but notice an almost child-like excitement you're experiencing at the prospect of becoming a real philosopher. And for that excitement itself, congratulations!

    Take care.

  4. Fixed Carbon,

    good question. Russell was actually critical of both parts, and he acted as a mediator. His problem with Kennedy was that the naval blockade of Cuba was illegal, even though he also condemned the presence of nuclear weapons anywhere in the world. One can argue that the Americans were being disingenuous on several fronts, for instance because they had their own missile installations in Turkey, right at the doorsteps of the Soviet Union.

    Remember of course that Kennedy gave the Soviets the excuse to send their ships to defend Cuba in the first place, because the US had already tried unsuccessfully to invade the island nation -- again an operation approved by Kennedy (the infamous Bay of Pigs affair).

    Russell was also critical of Kennedy for violating the UN Charter and for putting forth the idea that the US could with impunity threaten to attack a foreign nation whose government it did not like (a doctrine that was, in fact, put into practice several times afterwards, including most recently during Iraq-II).

  5. Ketan,

    thanks, much appreciated! :-)

  6. Wonderful post, as usual. Congrats!

  7. Im just beginning to get into philosophy readings myself (apart from philosophy of biology/science). Have David Hume's Treatise of Human Nature next in my cue, but just added 3 works of Russell to my wishlist (just in time for father's day!).

    Any other suggested readings for a beginning philosophy buff with a great deal of science education but no formal philosophy?

  8. Lorax,

    oh boy, the list is really long! Here is one of my favorite:


  9. Hello, I've lurked for years but rarely (maybe never) posted (don't remember). I would love to hear your take on desire utilitarianism as formulated by Alonzo Fyfe, the Atheist Ethicist.




    As far as I can tell, DU effectively solves most of the problems that have plagued moral theories over the centuries — including Hume's Is/Ought problem.

    You have never mentioned this as far as I can tell. It is a fascinating moral theory and Fyfe is eminently rational and consistent.

    Sincerely, RobertC.

  10. Massimo,

    Were you not already officially a philosopher (whatever that means) once you finished your Ph.D. in philosophy, or wrote your first publishable philos. paper, or article, or....?

    You got to love Bertrand Russell, is there a comprehensive archive of his writing on the internet somewhere? Anybody know?

  11. Russell's History of Western Philosophy was a great read. I've heard it said he was unfair to Aquinas amonst others and also quoted material third hand. A cracking read nonetheless. Some philosophers bore one to tears, or write in a style that is unpenetrable. Russell wasn't that type.

    Did someone mention Hume? Another secular saint, along with Berty.

    Here are some archives of Berty

  12. I just hope that you won't now turn around and feel guilty every time you read science - philosophers should (but often don't) feel guilty when they fail to read science. In other words, by becoming an official philosopher I think you have only added to your work load.

    As for Bertie, I like to say (tongue firmly planted in cheek) that I must be Russell's re-incarnation and have three pieces of evidence for it. The first is that both Bertie and I are philosophers. One could mention relative quality of our academic achievements but let's not since that might only hurt some people's feelings. The second is that I was born 11 months after Bertie died. So, that's two months in the aether and nine in mummy. All fits. It is the final, third piece of evidence that is the clincher, though. Neither Russell nor I believe in the least in this re-incarnation claptrap!

  13. Robert C, I took a thorough look at Desire Utilitarianism a few months ago, and I wasn't impressed. Fyfe fails (fatlly refuses) to define the meaning of his moral terms, and so ends up begging the question. However his arguments are so opaque that the fallacy can be difficult to see. You have to keep asking yourself, "what does this moral term actually mean?" and not allow your intuitive feelings about morality to fill the logical gap.

  14. It says a lot that Russells "History of Western Philosophy" is still a standard, despite all its faults.

    Massimo did not mention Russell's early championing of a man who many think was the greatest philosopher of the 20th century - Ludwig Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein was a notoriously difficult man, but had a knack of making important friends (another was the economist J.M.Keynes)- I suppose being a genius had something to do with it. Did Wittgenstein surpass his early teacher - afraid I do not know enough to decide!

    As I philosophy novice, I am reading "Philosophy of Science: A Short Introduction" by Samir Okasha who works in the UK. It lives up to its title, is reasonably priced and terrific at explaining things I had hitherto found boring and almost incomprehensible (e.g the difference between "realists" and "anti-realists" in science philosophy.)

    The best introduction to philosophy I have read is Brian Magee's "The Great Philosophers", the edited transcripts of conversations with modern philosophers about great philosophers of the past e.g. Magee (himself a philosopher)talking to AJ Ayers about Russell, or John Searle about Wittgenstein. As a bonus you can find the originals of the TV series (on which it was based) on You Tube.

    Imagine, there was a time when there were philosophical discussions on TV!

  15. Robert,

    I'll look at desire utilitarianism and will post a brief comment (or maybe write a full entry).


    well of course one is a philosopher if one writes professionally in philosophical journals or publishes technical books in philosophy, both of which I've been doing since my PhD in philosophy back in 2003.

    But biologist Richard Lewontin was once told in jest by philosopher Elliott Sober that one is really a philosopher when his paycheck comes from a philosophy department. Interestingly, Sober is one of the several people I have to thank for my new career, since he wrote one of my letters of recommendation.

  16. Thanks for the suggestion on 20 questions. Its in my BandN wishlist.

    While lengthy, I am a big fan of Mayr's Growth of Biological Thought.

  17. Toby, Samir Okasha's intro text is great, I agree. I taught a philosophy of science course last semester and seriously considered it, the other two choices being by Peter Godfrey-Smith and by John Ladyman. In the end, I went for Godfrey-Smith's text (Theory and Reality) and do not regret it - very clear, very up-to-date and interesting in the way it links things up. I particularly liked the way Godfrey-Smith made the point that you can't really do philosophy of science these days without also having some awareness of the sociology of science. But, if I was teaching a short course, Okasha would have been my choice, definitely.

  18. "...is there a comprehensive archive of his writing on the internet somewhere..."

    You can find fairly comprehensive sites by searching some variant of "Bertrand Russell on-line" or "e-texts." Several of his books are fully on-line, including: The Problems of Philosophy, Proposed Roads to Freedom, amd Political Ideals.

    I decided to post an abridged version of Political Ideals myself and offered additional (amatuer) commentary here.

    The History of Western Philosophy is one of the most rewarding reads for me (up there with Hecht's Doubt). I picked it up initially to read the section about Pythagoras having started a religion (Kitty Ferguson offers some criticism of Russell's take on Pythagoras in her recently released [and excellent] book The Music of Pythagoras) and was hooked on the whole book as soon as I started reading.

    I love this quote from the Russell-Einstein Manifesto: "We appeal as human beings to human beings: Remember your humanity, and forget the rest."

  19. "...nor do thought and love lose their value because they are not everlasting."

    Rusell's thought itself has indeed proven to be everlasting.

    And that part of his (as ours) natural vanity might not be totally objectionable.

  20. Hello,

    Bertrand Russell rocks! Thanks for this post, as usual.

    With skepticality,

  21. "Russell was also critical of Kennedy for violating the UN Charter and for putting forth the idea that the US could with impunity threaten to attack a foreign nation whose government it did not like (a doctrine that was, in fact, put into practice several times afterwards, including most recently during Iraq-II)."

    It's not a coincidence Chomsky has a portrait of Russell in his office.


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