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.”