This June, the OUP Philosophy team honors Bertrand Russell (May 18, 1872 – February 2, 1970) as their Philosopher of the Month. Considered among the most distinguished philosophers of the 20th century, Russell’s style, wit, and contributions to a wide range of philosophical fields made him an influential figure in both academic and popular philosophy. Among his best known philosophical works, the History of Western Philosophy demonstrates the scope of Russell’s curiosity and understanding, and highlights the interrelation of seemingly disparate areas of philosophy.
His most influential work includes his defence of logicism (the view that mathematics is in some important sense reducible to logic), and his theories of definite descriptions and logical atomism. Along with Kurt Gödel, he is also regularly credited with being one of the most important logicians of the 20th century. Russell’s contributions to logic and the foundations of mathematics include his discovery of Russell’s paradox, his detailed development of logicism, his development of the theory of types, and his refining of the first-order predicate calculus.
Russell discovered the paradox that bears his name in 1901, while working on his Principles of Mathematics (1903). The paradox arises in connection with the set of all sets that are not members of themselves. Such a set, if it exists, will be a member of itself if and only if it is not a member of itself. The paradox is significant since, using classical logic, all sentences are entailed by a contradiction. Russell’s discovery thus prompted a large amount of work in logic, set theory, and the philosophy and foundations of mathematics.
Russell was the President of the Aristotelian Society, and along with G. E. Moore, is generally recognized as one of the founders of analytic philosophy. Among his most important philosophical contributions is his theory of descriptions, which distinguished between the logical and grammatical subject of propositions, and developed a theory of meaning which was able to avoid the popular view that the grammatical subjects of all meaningful propositions must refer to objects which in some sense exist.
Russell is remembered not only for his own outstanding philosophical achievements but also for the crucially important personal encouragement that he gave to his student Ludwig Wittgenstein, who might very well have abandoned philosophy had not Russell seen the importance of the Tractatus logico-philosophicus, which appeared in 1922 and for which Russell wrote a highly significant introduction. In later life Russell gradually withdrew from his logical studies, and then from his philosophical work, towards political concerns and, especially, dedication to the cause of nuclear disarmament. Awarded the Order of Merit in 1949 and the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1950, Russell remained a prominent public figure until his death at the age of ninety-seven.
Featured image credit: the Wren Library at Nevile’s Court of Trinity College. Photo by Cmglee. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.