Russell Biography

Ferment Magazine

Bertrand Russell: A Philosopher's Search for Relevance

A review of the 2-volume biography of Bertrand Russell by Ray Monk:


  1. Prolegomena
  2. Prologue
  3. Preface
  4. Exposition:

    A. Philosophy

    • Prelude
    • The Philosophy of Psychology
    • versus the Psychology of Philosophers
    • Fugue

    B. Russell's Popular Writing

    C. Political Activism

    D. The Axiomatic Casanova


  5. 5. References


By virtue of the notorious laxity which is the prerogative of language, it is permissible that both Bertrand Russell , and his biographer Ray Monk should be identified as 'professional philosophers' . It is as such that they have been acknowledged by the official institutions of the society in which they have diachronically participated. No doubt there are historians who can tell us about the origins of the tradition whereby such a designation carries the presumption that each had been, at some time in their lives, on the faculty of a philosophy department at some university, accredited within that region of the globe gathered into the artifice of European Imperialism.

This is a terrible definition by any standard. Five minutes of critical philosophical analysis suffices to demolish it. For starters, none of the ancient Greeks who, by consensus, are the acknowledged founders of their philosophical tradition ( which, wrongly identified with Western Europe, embraces North Africa, Byzantium , Eastern Europe and all Islamic civilization ) and on whose authority all professional philosophy stakes its legitimacy, came close to having such a credential . Socrates, beneficiary, like Christ and Samuel Johnson, of a good public relations crew, yet no doubt illustrious in his own right, was a basically unemployable illiterate, that is to say an idler in the opinions of his neighbors. Thales was an engineer. Democritus most resembles a hard-headed scientist of today, with his rough optic of 'naive realism'. Pythagoras is the prototypical scientific administrator, in charge of his research institute in Croton. Zeno of Elea, denying the existence of motion, was the Robbe-Grillet of his age.

Apart from Aristotle, who appears to have started the whole industry of philosophical posturing, it is doubtful that many of the others carried themselves about with any sort of self-image, respectable, competitive, inflated or otherwise, based on a notion of philosophical professionalism. Granting that Gorgias the Sophist, may have done so, it wasn't because he drew a salary from some school licensed by the government.

By common report, Diogenes was a street person who, like the old woman in her shoe, lived in a barrel. According to Diogenes Laertius, the Corinthian Diogenes, when not carrying about his lamp, was known to 'jerk-off' in public, then claim that it was a pity that the belly could not be so easily satisfied with a bit of rubbing. Heraclitus is said, because of a condition similar to that which caused Marat to pass his days in a warm bath, to have taken up residence in a mound of manure . Anaxagorus was sent into exile, Xenophanes of Colophon was a wandering street musician. Leprosy made Plotinus repulsive: he is said to have taken delight in the fact that disciples came to him because of what he had to say, not for the beauty of his person.

Coming to the modern period, the exiled Spinoza ground lenses for a living ; he refused a university appointment when one was offered to him. Leibniz, a figure right out of the imagination of E.T.A. Hoffmann, was so many things at once that he cannot, in justice, be deemed any one of them.(In 1899 Bertrand Russell gave a series of lectures at Trinity College, Cambridge, that claimed to be ' a reconstruction of the system which Leibniz should have written'. He was not the first, nor the last person to assert that he understood Leibniz's philosophy better than Leibniz himself!)

Descartes was a professional soldier. Nietzsche and C.S. Peirce were rootless vagabonds. One is amazed to learn how many who have had an major impact in the history of philosophy must be put on the list of "amateurs" relative to the canons of the philosophical professionals. One should not be surprised to learn that I myself underwent a (mild) crisis of identity when, before setting out to review Ray Monk's 1300 page biography of Bertrand Russell, the question arose as to whether or not my training, credibility or credentials were adequate to the task of to reviewing a professional philosopher's take on the life of another professional philosopher - not any professional philosopher mind you, but the very man in fact who, to the English mind and its many intellectual satrapies around the planet , is considered the exemplar of the professional philosopher!

Needless to say, I can state " All professional philosophers lie!" without incurring the paradox of Epimenides: I am not a professional philosopher. Today's breed of professional philosophers, if they bothered to address me at all , would never take me into their collective busom.

Still, avoiding the trap of false modesty without being arrogant, I am reasonably confident that more than a few of these 'ancient Greek paradigms would have considered me very much at home among them. To begin with I am not unversed in Geometry: a background in mathematics, renewed and enriched over the last 2 decades, would have made me welcome at any time in Plato's Academy. My research interests in physics would have been certain to spark lively discussions with Democritus, Zeno, Empedocles , Anaximander, Anaxagorus and later, Lucretius. None of the issues in Ferment's 19 years repository would presume to be in the same league as Plato's Dialogues ; yet it is not to be doubted that he and I could have shared insights into effective techniques for conveying an intellectual thesis in a short essay, through the creation of believable personalities within a fictional framework.

Yes, I have studied Logic, from Aristotle to Frege, Brouwer, Godel and even the super-finitism of Alexander Yesenin-Volpin (Ferment VIII ; #2,3,6 ). Like Xenophanes and Abelard the troubadour, I too have tramped the roads on wings of song. There are pages in my life history that accord well with the wildest inventions of E.T.A. Hoffmann. Like Nietzsche, C.S. Peirce, Paracelsus and Raymon Lull, the destiny, sometimes joyful, more often desperate , of the rootless wanderer is not unknown to me .

Does this qualify me sufficiently to review the work of professional philosophers writing about the works of professional philosophers? The truth of the matter actually comes as something of a surprise: in point of fact, no professional label is quite so vulnerable, fluid and fragile as that of 'philosopher' . One should keep in mind of course, that although Plato does have Socrates state somewhere that, ' all men are philosophers', one hears distinctly, in the cavernous silence that follows this disclaimer, the inevitable rejoinder: some people are better at it than others . The same democratic dictum , with analogous rejoinder, can be applied equally well to poets, judges , consultants and cooks. Less than 2 centuries since it would also have covered medical doctors: a false security exaggerates the extent to which things are somehow different nowadays.

It is important to understand, however, that those persons who are better than others at philosophy are not always, indeed I would say not very often, to be found among the 'professionals' , persons with academic jobs who publish in the 'professional' journals. This situation may have something to do with the depreciation, in the modern world, of a designation that had been sterling currency in the European continuum for the better part of 2000 years. The reverberations of "philosophy" as a legitimate human enterprise were far more resonant in the Classical World than nowadays. Five schools of philosophy were recognized from Plato's age to the breakup of the Roman Empire, each thriving in different times and places: Peripatetic, Epicurian, Stoic, Sophist, and Pythagorean.

In today's academic world, the Peripatetics would not fit anywhere. Certainly neither Socrates, Plato nor Aristotle would feel at home in any modern university. Sophistry has found some refuge in modern law faculties, schools business management, and Theological Seminaries designed to turn out practitioners of golden-tongued oratory. The near- complete neglect of Rhetoric in our own time has more or less deprived even these faculties of everything the Sophists would consider their raison d'etre .

One can argue that Stoicism is still present in monastic traditions. Christianity itself appears to be a blend of Talmudic thought, Senecan Stoicism, Greek mystery religion, Roman Imperialism and Platonism - the undeniable presence of which may be seen in the doctrine of the Trinity, which was taken directly from the pages of The Republic .

The Epicurians find their counterpart in the legions of gurus and prophets of the New Age.

It is the Pythagoreans, the quantifying scientists, who have completely taken over the universities.


The lesson to be drawn from this sketchy polemic is that those academic philosophers who arrogate to themselves the unique right to be called 'professionals' , are in reality at most the guardians of a once eminent profession now desperately in search of its own subject matter. One might call this the "relevance dilemma" of modern professional philosophy. Every academic philosopher since the age of Kant has had to deal with it. One goal common to all 5 classical schools was that philosophy should point the way to living the good life.

Ved Mehta puts it this way in Fly and the Fly-Bottle , a witty collection of sketches of English philosophers and historians in the early 60's. A pseudonymous individual named John is giving him the low-down on the Oxford school of philosophy, while also plying him with claret to make the pill less bitter. Mehta comments:

" I pried at his mind with ancient philosophers ( who taught men, among other things, what to do and how to live) for my lenses. 'Does each of the Oxford philosophers fancy himself a Socrates?' ...'You're mixed up in a difficult business', he said, pouring me some claret.......' Although he did not know it, Socrates, like us, was really trying to solve linguistic puzzles.'... " (Fly and the Fly Bottle ; page 22 )

Getting back to serious matters: philosophers were also in agreement that the 3 great divisions of philosophy were logic, physics and ethics. Neither Aristotle the logician, Democritus the physicist, nor Diogenes the moralist would have dreamt of trying to incorporate all three into any one of them. Both Hegel and Russell tried to stuff everything into logic. Hegel's dialectical logic was hardly logic as the ancients understood it, while Russell's monumental attempts to generate everything out of symbolic logic culminated in a series of grandiose and grotesque failures.

Most of the intellectual disciplines that were under the supervision of the philosophers of the ancient world have since matured into autonomous disciplines, pursued by specialists who never get around to visiting philosophy departments:

### Philosophical Logic is completely eclipsed by Mathematical Logic. First Boole and Peirce, then Frege, Peano and Russell were the pioneers chiefly responsible for this.

### What Aristotle and Pythagoras called Physics , or Natural Science, has been liberated from the clutches of the philosophers - for which we can only be thankful - since the time of Galileo. What is called Philosophy of Science today , a field associated with the names of Carnap, Hempel and Popper and revitalized by Thomas Kuhn , is concerned mostly with the history of science, design of experiments and internal consistency of theories.

In Ethics , it is true, there has been a resurgence. The terrifying social reality that is rapidly evolving through the untrammeled advance of medicine, genetic engineering, techniques of artificial fertilization and life-prolonging interventions, have legitimized a genuine profession: that of Bioethicist, trained in philosophical reasoning and the history of thought.

Metaphysics , it is claimed , was killed off by Kant , revived by Hegel, done to death by John Stuart Mill, re-invented by McTaggart , Bergson and Whitehead, slain once again by Ernst Mach and the Vienna Circle...... World systems are out of favor, and a self-proclaimed " metaphysician" has little chance of a career in the academic world. The real work in this domain today is being done by preachers, gurus, astrologers, fortune tellers and conspiracy theorists. This is really rather a shame: one misses the bold flights of a McTaggart who, ( after demolishing time, space, matter and everything else we take for granted) , promises us an all-embracing universe of love; or the mystic paleontology of a Teilhard de Chardin; or the personalism of a Berdyaev.

This is the essence of the "relevance dilemma". Apart from being a professional, what does a professional philosopher do ? The attempts of Bertrand Russell, who was always seeking after relevance, who stopped doing philosophy later in life because he believed that there was nothing of comparable importance to the avoidance of nuclear war, can be put into four categories:

First came a series of heroic efforts to replace Hegelian logic by symbolic logic, ( and the related Bradleyan Idealism by "logical atomism") , as a scientific basis for knowledge and thought.

Failing that he branched out in 3 directions: popular writing, political activism and sexual liberation. The latter activity, which brought him much more tragedy than the failure of his quest to reduce knowledge to logic, also failed to earn him any of the respect he had gained through the former activity.

Only in his political activism did he once more attain to some real, if temporary, distinction. The weird and volatile Russell/Schoenman alliance at his life's close that rounds off Monk's biography yielded many good fruits, though proving a disaster in the long run. It is indeed unfortunate that Russell was too old and Schoenman too juvenile, to capitalize on their accomplishments.

One asks the question: did Russell, through his incredibly energetic pursuit of these four objectives , find relevance ? Apparently Ray Monk believed that he did, else why would he have invested 10 years of his life in the creation of a 1300 page biography, complete with enough interviews, references and footnotes to satisfy the most fastidious historian?

One must therefore regret that Monk, perhaps as a result of the amount of labor and length of time involved, grew to hate his subject. Enthusiastic at the onset, by the time Monk comes to Russell's final decades, he no longer wants to say anything good about him. As he becomes increasingly disillusioned, Monk also becomes increasingly unfair. When all is said and done Bertrand Russell was an extraordinary human being, a great man if not a good one. There are, after all, many more great men than there are men who are great because of their goodness. One ought to be scrupulous in not applying to Russell what he himself applied to his political adversaries in his later years: righteous, dogmatic judgments of praise or condemnation, of flattened perspective, delivered in a tone of absolute authority.

Ray Monk's own solution of the relevance dilemma is also of interest. By becoming a biographer of other philosophers he seems to have found his way to a unique contribution to the contemporary discourse. Monk writes well; his comments, observations and interpretations show discernment and intelligence; his research is thorough. In contra-distinction to previous biographies of Russell, Monk attempts to convey the spirit, and even something of the substance of Russell's technically daunting philosophical work, while not neglecting to render a comprehensive, ( and engrossing), portrait of one of the most fascinating personalities of the 20th century.

Whatever the verdict, the publication of this biography is an important event, and must inevitably lead to a major re-assessment of the intellectual history of the last century.

To fully appreciate these volumes one ought to have some background in the history of philosophy and in modern logic. These prerequisites carry over to readers of this essay. A major concession: despite the very great pleasure I derive from the writing out of long strings of logical pictographs , I have refrained from inserting them into this text.


Numerous biographies have reinforced the public's interest in the basic facts of the life of Bertrand Russell. Rather than supplying his own recapitulation of these, this reviewer assumes that they have long been available in the form of numerous biographies, including several Russell wrote about himself. Writing memoirs was one of Russell's hobbies. His substantial autobiography is the only item in his 3,000 item catalogue of publications that Monk singles out for praise as literature: " Russell could not overcome his natural tendency to turn his attention inward and to review his past life. In so doing he produced a literary masterpiece. The autobiography ... " ( Vol II, Page 124) Curiously enough, it was in that same year, 1931, that Russell contracted to write a weekly column for the newspapers of the Hearst syndicate. In Monk's opinion ( op. cit. , pg 127) : " These slight and ephemeral pieces represent the nadir in Russell's writing career... "

This juxtaposition of superior with mediocre craft gives one a sense of Russell's complexity. All the facts about Russell's life are set forth in admirable detail in the 2 volumes of Monk's biography. Unlike, say, the New York Times Book Review, or the New York Review of Books, Ferment does not intend to consume 50% of this review in restating their contents. Ferment differs in this regard from the standard commercial opinionators, tied as they must be to the expectations of publishers, book-sellers and potential readers. We are not required to give away the secrets in the name of maximizing potential sales.

Our strategy will therefore be the following: having evoked the notion of a "relevance dilemma" in professional philosophy, we intend, using Monk's biography as a guide, to investigate the scope and merit of Russell's efforts in the afore-mentioned categories:

A. Professional Philosophy, notably Logic
B. Popular Writing
C. Political Activism
D. Sexual Liberation

Those readers who are for "a tale of bawdry lest they sleep " may skip the rest and go right to category D. They will probably find that it is more boring than any of the others.


A. Philosophy

Wittgenstein is credited with convincing Bertrand Russell that philosophy was not his real metier . The beginning of the end was Wittgenstein's commonsense observation that "Logic" is a science without subject matter: "..Wittgenstein seems to be rejecting the idea that there are any logical objects at all. Logic is therefore 'totally different from any other science' , in not having a subject matter. This cuts at the very root of Russell's understanding of both logic and philosophy, for he conceived both to be the analysis of logical forms.... " (Monk, Vol I, pg. 278 )

It is my opinion that, in the same way, if Philosophy is to be treated as a Science , then it must differ from all other sciences in being a collection of problems without solutions. One of the more annoying features of the 'Russellian style' in philosophy is his insistence that he alone had found solutions to controversies that had bedeviled ( sometimes befuddled) a double-millenium's weight of philosophers. Throughout his career we see Russell coining "one-liners" dismissive of his predecessors; his semi-popular History of Western Philosophy is full of them. Here is his opinion of Aristotle's doctrine of Substance :

" 'Substance' in a word, is a metaphysical mistake, due to transference to the world-structure of the structure of sentences composed of a subject and a predicate. " ( A History of Western Philosophy , pg. 202 )

Many amateurs like myself, whose knowledge of philosophy is belatedly superficial, don't agree that philosophical issues are grammatical mistakes: to our mind, Philosophy differs from Science in that it is in the nature of the problems associated with Ontology, Causation, Truth, and other great philosophical issues, ( leading to positions variously qualified as Realism, Idealism, Nominalism, Monism, Dualism, etc.) that they can never be "refuted", or "demolished" in any scientific sense, in the way, for example, in which Carl Friedrich Gauss "demolished" the hope that a circle could be squared with ruler and compass.

The labels themselves are fluid : Realism , in the vocabulary of Roscelin, Abelard and Guillaume de Champeaux, meant a belief in the real existence of Universals. In the vocabulary of Moore and Russell it means a certain form of opposition to Bradleyan Idealism, an insistence on the existence of an external reality independent of our thinking.

To me , the great value of Philosophy lies in the very fact that it is not a science , in the technical sense of an accumulation of solved problems and problem-solving techniques ( some of which are called 'theories') . Rather it should be thought of as a perpetual, inexhaustible critical inquiry into the nature of Knowledge, Truth, Mind and the Cosmos.

Notable among the 'problems' of philosophy which will continue forever to inspire philosophers and scientists alike, are the celebrated Paradoxes, the most famous of these being the Paradoxes of Zeno of Elea , and the Russell Paradox. Briefly stated, the Russell Paradox arises from the observation that the set X of all sets that don't contain themselves is a paradoxical construction. For X is a member of itself if and only if it is not a member of itself. It is not this observation, per se, for which Russell is famous - its form is equivalent to the Epimenides Paradox invoked above : "Cretans always lie!" , says the Cretan Epimenides - but for his profound insight into the way this fact makes it impossible that there should be any simple relationship of logic to mathematics. Its discovery, around the turn of the century, leads directly to Goedel's Incompleteness Theorems in the 30's .

Bertrand Russell's own reaction to the paradox may be taken as evidence that, spiritually, he was not a mathematician. This would not have upset him, since he claimed not to like mathematicians. Virtually every mathematician of my acquaintance would have broken out into wild rejoicing upon making the only discovery that would keep his name in the textbooks and encyclopedias for the rest of scientific history. Russell's reaction was a deep depression that afflicted him for years. What upset him was the thought that he had shown that "mathematics" did not have absolute certainty, a dogma he'd accepted almost as a religion since age 11, when his brother Frank showed him the power of Euclid's axiomatic method: " 'Suddenly I came upon a difficulty greater than any I had known before. So difficult it was, that to think of it at all required an all but superhuman effort. And long I got sick with nausea of the whole subject, so that I longed to think of anything else under the sun; and sheer fatigue has become almost incapacitating. ' " ( Monk Vol I, page 150 )

The only real difficulty, and this is in line with Russell's character as a whole, was in his insistence that the Paradox had to have a solution, in the same way that the equation x*2 - 17x + 72 = 0 has two roots. Similarly, he had to believe that Idealism was incorrect ; that Parmenidean Monism was incorrect ; that Aristotle's ideas about logic were worthless ; that he had always been the helpless victim of his evil ex-wife Dora ; that ( in his later years ) the United States had to drop A-bombs on Russia because Communism was evil ; that JFK was a bigger monster than Hitler ; and that his first son, John Conrad , had to be shut away in an asylum for the rest of his life . The list may not be endless, but one becomes fatigued long before reaching the end of it .

Russell, it appears, had an attitude problem. His oft stated intention to solve all the classical dichotomies, schisms, dilemmas and antinomies of philosophy by placing them onto a scientific foundation, must be seen as fundamentally wrong-headed as so many of his views on morals, marriage, education, politics and many other topics.

None of this is really serious. People don't take philosophers seriously anyway. The fact that the Athenian polis was so outraged by Socrates that it condemned him to death , should be seen as a back-handed complement to philosophy : who would bother to execute a philosopher today? (Heidegger, it is true, came close ... but .......)

Given his indisputable brilliance, Russell also came up with many good ideas. He may have been guilty of dogmatism but I don't think he ever made any claim to infallibility. The ideas of most people on all the subjects he wrote about are much worse than his. Writers, alas, are in a profession wherein they cannot avoid exhibiting to the rest of the world the sheer asininity and shallowness that afflicts us all. Silence is the real only refuge for those who do not want to be thought fools. We condemn writers for the crime of speaking up, but wrongly imagine that this makes them worse than the rest of us.

Finally, Russell was a highly original thinker, and originality is always condemned. Ray Monk , in the opinion of this reviewer, falls into this error in issuing a blanket condemnation of the political activism of Russell's final decades. We will come back to this topic in its proper place.


In the exposition of his own paradoxes, ( essentially a single one dressed up in various ways), Zeno of Elea was more prescient than Bertrand Russell . He must have known that his proofs of the impossibility of motion would cause incalculable mental anguish down the millennia, and shamelessly rejoiced in this knowledge! Suffice it to remark that Aristotle himself dubbed Zeno of Elea , "the inventor of dialectic" . Final "resolutions" of the paradoxes of both Zeno and Russell must await irrefutable proofs that "Being" is ultimately either "One" or "Many", and that "Universals" are either "Real", or "Linguistic Conventions" . This is not likely to happen in our lifetimes.

The Philosophy of Psychology versus The Psychology of Philosophers

I would like to propose that the reasons why a philosopher will prefer Idealism to Realism, Dualism to Monism, Determinism to Free Will , etc. , have nothing to do with his conviction of the superior validity of any one of these positions, but everything to do with his likes and dislikes, biases, education and even his psychological profile. It should come as no surprise that the tortured, terrified soul of a Friedrich Nietzsche should have conceived the will to power . Nor that Immanuel Kant, a man of pathologically regular habits, should be the master architect of a world system based on the judicious regulation of experience via the categories of the synthetic apriori . Nor that the fiery Heraclitus should proclaim that the ultimate reality was fire . Nor that a mathematical genius like Pythagoras ( or whoever it was that discovered both the irrationality of the square root of two and the relationship of musical consonance to simple ratios of lengths on the monochord ) should proclaim that Number was the stuff of the universe. Nor that Plato's Republic should bear an amazing resemblance to that magnificent mixture of autocracy and flexibility that clearly characterized Plato himself.

That the brilliant, self-centered, twisted, pathologically isolated, self-absorbed and somewhat confused psyche of Bertrand Russell was all of a piece with his philosophical preoccupations and his dogmatic postures is, to my mind, amply demonstrated in the pages of Monk's biography. The person one finds in the philosophy appears also in the political man: passionate though outwardly cold, complex, sure of his rightness at all times.

Another feature of Russell's personality that one can depend upon in both philosophy, personal life, writings and in his politics, is his quixotic undependability. It is fascinating, in this regard, to put together an overview of the history of his attempts to put all of mathematics on a foundation of symbolic logic. Time and again one witnesses his predilection for asserting hypotheses on superficial evidence, then abandoning them just as capriciously once when he senses that the ship on which he has embarked is about to spring a leak.He worries a notion to the brink of death, before killing it off with solutions that satisfy no-one, which he himself will repudiate with a few years, beginning the process all over again.