Thursday, June 19, 2008


Bertrand Russell in 90 Minutes
By Thomas Riggins

This short book [Bertrand Russell in 90 Minutes by Paul Strathern, Chicago, Ivan R. Dee, 2001] of 92 pages is one of many (24 at the time it was published) in Strathern’s 90 Minutes series. If you know absolutely nothing about Russell, perhaps the greatest English speaking philosopher (bourgeois) of the 20th century, you could begin with this book – but you will need more than it provides to really understand Russell.

Russell (1872-1970) was both a technical philosopher in the empiricist tradition (Locke, Hume, Mill) and a socially engaged activist – most famously in the “Ban the Bomb Movement”, co-founded with Einstein, of the 1950s and 1960s. He also co-chaired, with Jean Paul Sartre, the war crimes tribunal that exposed the Nazi like criminal behavior of the US in Vietnam, although Strathern doesn’t mention this. Russell got the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1950. His best known popular works A History of Western Philosophy (1945), “Why I am Not A Christian” (1927), and The Problems of Philosophy (1912).

Strathern’s short introduction made me a little cautious since he refers to Wittgenstein as “the philosopher who succeeded to his mantle.” This is not an apt comment as Wittgenstein was the moving force behind a philosophical school not endorsed by Russell. No one really succeeded to Russell’s mantle.

Strathern does point out the three great passions that Russell always said drove his life, “the longing for love, the quest for knowledge, and heart-rending pity for the suffering of humanity.” He also points out that Russell’s philosophy was rooted in a scientific world outlook. I think, however, he misrepresents Russell when he writes that he “sought to establish a demonstrably certain logical philosophy....”

Russell always maintained that philosophy, like science, was always provisional and dealt with probabilities not “demonstrably certain” knowledge. I think Strathern confused Russell’s empirically based philosophy with his early attempt to deduce arithmetic from logic in Principia Mathematica (co-authored with A. N. Whitehead). Russell was one of the founders of modern mathematical logic.

The heart of this book is the 63 page essay “Russell’s Life and Works.” Strathern describes how Russell, who was educated at Cambridge, revolted against the prevailing neo-Hegelian idealism he found at the university and developed a philosophy based on logical analysis which he later called “logical atomism” because it stressed the discreteness of things rather than seeing them as all interrelated parts of the neo-Hegelian “Absolute.”

The best part of this book is Strathern’s explanation of Russell’s Paradox and his Theory of Types. He presents these technical topics that Russell dealt with in mathematical class theory in an easily understandable way so that lay readers can follow the arguments that took place in early 20th century philosophy of mathematics and logic.

Unfortunately, Strathern does not present Russell’s mature philosophy. After the excellent mathematical exposition he gives an overview of Russell’s thought based on works from which he later diverged. This is especially the case with the 1912 The Problems of Philosophy. Strathern should have consulted Russell’s 1959 My Philosophical Development where he gives his final views on many of the topics discussed in the 90 Minutes book. Russell may need more than ninety minutes!

Strathern barely mentions Russell’s political views just noting The Theory and Practice of Bolshevism, Russell’s diatribe against the Russian Revolution, and he never points out Russell’s misreading of Hegel and Marx which mar his reputation as an historian of philosophy.

He also relies too much on Ray Monk’s biography of Russell – which he calls “superb, possibility definitive” without pointing out that most Russell scholars react negatively to Monk’s work.

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