Bertrand Russell lived for almost ninety-eight years. It was a long and remarkably eventful life for a philosopher, and it covered the greatest century of change which humanity has so far witnessed. When Russell was born, the American Civil War had just finished, and the twenty-eight-year-old Nietzsche was writing his first book, The Birth of Tragedy. By the time Russell died, man had set foot on the moon, and even the philosopher who succeeded to his mantle, Wittgenstein, had been dead for almost a quarter of a century.
Bertrand Russell asserted that throughout his life he was driven by three great passions – the longing for love, the quest for knowledge, and heart-rending pity for the suffering of humanity. He sought the first in order to escape an unendurable loneliness, and because the ecstasy it brought him was so great he claimed he would willingly have sacrificed his life for such bliss. His pursuit of knowledge was equally passionate. He needed to know ‘why the stars shine’ and the power ‘by which numbers hold sway above the flux’. His philosophy always took deep account of science, a necessity that eluded many philosophers during a century in which science transformed the world.
Darwin’s theory of evolution was still new when Russell was born; the unraveling of the structure of DNA was under way by the time he died in 1970. In between, relativity, quantum physics, nuclear fission, and the Big Bang theory had changed forever the way we viewed our universe. Yet in many ways Russell’s philosophical outlook – deeply rooted as it was in both logic and empiricism – remained essentially unchanged. For the most part his manner was both lucid and commonsensical, though he would characterise common sense itself as ‘the metaphysics of savages’, and refused to let the content of his thought (as distinct from its mode of expression) be distorted by its malign influence.
Bertrand Russell was aristocratic enough not to mind appearing ludicrous. Indeed, a number of his more extreme political stances were largely viewed as just this. His character was a potent mix of elitist arrogance, candid honesty, and unbending principle. He could see into the depths of the world (both philosophically and politically), but he was often blind concerning his own inner world. Yet it was this psychological unknowingness which appeared to drive him, giving emotional force to even his most intellectual inquiries as well as his frequent affairs of the heart.
Contradictory and controversial
A passionate approach indeed for a philosopher, this driven quest for love and knowledge. As Russell himself acknowledged, such pursuits led him toward the heavens. Yet it was his third passion, his pity for suffering humanity, that brought him back to earth. The victims of the world’s human-inflicted evils – war, poverty, torture, pain – would again and again stir him to quixotic action.
Throughout his life Russell remained a figure of contradiction and controversy. The man who was for a period regarded as the world’s leading philosopher would also be reviled for his advanced liberal views on love and other social matters. The man who was honoured with the Nobel Prize was also twice sent to jail. The man who sought to establish a demonstrably certain logical philosophy would encourage the very philosopher whose work superseded and undermined this philosophy.
Yet if Russell’s logical philosophy can be said to have failed, his political philosophy arguably succeeded. (No matter that philosophers regarded the latter as philosophically trivial, or even outrageous: he certainly did not.) Nowadays the accepted social mores of the Western world much more closely resemble Russell’s liberal ideas than those of many more widely regarded contemporary political and ethical thinkers. Likewise, his vehement campaign against nuclear weapons laid the foundations for nuclear disarmament – though he would doubtless point out that this process remains far from complete and may still result in the disaster he sought to avoid.
Ultimately Bertrand Russell himself admitted that he made his greatest efforts in the field of traditional philosophy – in epistemology, the search for the ultimate grounds of our knowledge about the world. How can we be certain that what we claim to know is true? Where lies the certainty in our experience of the world? Can even the most precise knowledge – such as mathematics – be said to rest on any sure logical foundation? These were the questions that Russell sought to answer during the periods of his most profound philosophical thinking. They have remained the perennial questions of philosophy from Plato and Aristotle through Descartes, Hume, and Kant, to Russell and Wittgenstein.
The latter half of the twentieth century saw a concerted attempt to undermine such questions. (‘There is no such thing as universal truth.’ ‘All knowledge is relative to the historical era or culture in which it is accepted.’) But the persistence of scientific-philosophical thinking ensures that the questions Russell addressed remain very much central to present-day thought. His thinking, and the advances he made in epistemology, remain utterly relevant to our contemporary philosophical situation. The age of seemingly ever expanding scientific knowledge requires more than ever a philosophy to underpin that knowledge.
In an overall sense this has yet to be found. Possibly it never will be. Yet the attempt to see how such a philosophy might support our scientific knowledge remains fruitful. In trying to discover its certainty we understand more about what such knowledge is. We think scientifically about an apparently scientific world. What does this mean about us and about the world we inhabit? What is the link between these two disparate entities, if any? Bertrand Russell’s thought was one of the later, and more illuminating, stages in this age-old philosophical quest.