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Bertrand Russell (Bertrand Arthur William Russell, 3rd Earl Russell, OM, FRS (18 May 1872 – 2 February 1970)) has been a major influence on my life. I asked for and was given a copy of his collected Basic Writings of Bertrand Russell for my 21st birthday and although I never agreed entirely with every one of his opinions I have always respected them.
In 1950 Russell won the Nobel Prize in literature but remained a controversial figure. He was responsible for the Russell–Einstein Manifesto in 1955. The signatories included Albert Einstein, just before his death, and ten other eminent intellectuals and scientists. They warned of the dangers of nuclear weapons and called on governments to find alternative ways of resolving conflict. Russell went on to become the first president of the campaign for nuclear disarmament (CND) and subsequently organised opposition to the Vietnam War. He could be seen in 50's news-reels at the head of CND demonstrations with his long divorced second wife Dora, for which he was jailed again at the age of 89. The logo originally designed for the CND, the phallic Mercedes, became widely used as a universal peace symbol in the 60s and 70s, particularly in hippie communes and crudely painted on VW camper-vans.
To his Basic Writings I later added his History of Western Philosophy and an Inquiry into Meaning and Truth. Only Hume and Plato outnumber him on my philosophy shelf. Russell's writing is particularly precise and dense. He reputedly wrote about 3000 words a day for most of his life but he is not an 'easy read'. At heart Russell is a mathematician and logician.
Together with Alfred North Whitehead Russell wrote the landmark text Principia Mathematica that ranks alongside Einstein's Theory of Special Relativity as amongst the most important intellectual insights of the early 20th century.
According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy this is one of the most influential books on logic ever written:
'It was published in three volumes in 1910, 1912 and 1913... Today there is not a major academic library anywhere in the world that does not possess a copy of this landmark publication.
It served as a major impetus for research in the foundations of mathematics throughout the twentieth century... Principia Mathematica proved to be influential in at least three ways. First, it popularized modern mathematical logic to an extent undreamt of by its authors. Whitehead and Russell managed to convey the remarkable expressive power of modern predicate logic in a way that previous writers had been unable to achieve. Second, by exhibiting so clearly the deductive power of the new logic, Whitehead and Russell were able to show how powerful the modern idea of a formal system could be, thus opening up new work in what was soon to be called metalogic. Third, Principia Mathematica reaffirmed clear and interesting connections between logicism and two of the main branches of traditional philosophy, namely metaphysics and epistemology, thus initiating new and interesting work in both of these areas.
Thus, not only did Principia introduce a wide range of philosophically rich notions (such as propositional function, logical construction, and type theory), it also set the stage for the discovery of classical metatheoretic results (such as those of Kurt Gödel, Alonzo Church, Alan Turing and others) and initiated a tradition of common technical work in fields as diverse as philosophy, mathematics, linguistics, economics and computer science.'
Thus (following the link above):
'Alan Turing's 1950 paper 'Computing Machinery and Intelligence' is one of the most frequently cited in modern philosophical literature. It gave a fresh approach to the traditional mind-body problem... His work can be regarded as the foundation of computer science and of the artificial intelligence program.'
Russell's work in these areas led to significant advances in western thought and laid the ground for both logical positivism and information theory. Other analytical or realist philosophers developed his ideas including Ryle and Strawson in linguistics, and Carnap, AJ Ayer and Karl Popper in empiricism and logical positivism. It will be obvious to anyone who is familiar with the works of these philosophers that they, in turn, heavily influenced me in my thinking. This is clearly exposed in my essay to my children, The Meaning of Life, published on this website. Russell was also a major influence on his student Ludwig Wittgenstein who, became a major influence in both the English speaking world and Europe. I take my hat off to anyone who fully understands what he's talking about.
In this respect Russell stands with other English speaking British, American and Australian empiricists, in opposition to the romantic idealism of European philosophy that later evolved into existentialism, post modernism and the deconstructionists.
It is difficult to over emphasise the importance of western empirical philosophy on the development of modern science and scientific thinking. It is also central to the theory of language, information theory and symbolic logic that has been fundamental to the development of computer science.
But these days it is difficult to find 'legitimate' philosophy books on any of these fundamental streams of intellectual development in a 'regular' bookshop. If any are to be found at all they are likely to be sandwiched between vast numbers of self-help books; books on the occult; and a multiplicity of religions. Astrology trumps Aristotle.
Thank Berners-Lee (and Russell) for the Web!
You can read a number of Russell's writings on line click here and watch the video below, covering just one aspect of his many areas of interest:
You follow the YouTube links displayed at the conclusion of this video clip at your own risk.