Russell was often controversialist in style, particularly with regard for his religious beliefs. His collection of essays “why I am not a Christian”, was published in 1927, a deeply traditional time, and he knew that it was likely to cause uproar. He was also noted for his description of Nazism and Communism as religions, as he felt they had many of the same aspects with regards to damaging human scientific and moral progress. His frankness was also a part of his style; he once said ‘I would never die for my beliefs, because I might be wrong’. He also made the analogy now known as “Russell’s Teapot” where if he claimed that an undetectable teapot orbited between Earth and Mars, he should be expected to prove it; however this would not be the case if belief in the teapot constituted a religion.
One vital contribution Russell made to philosophy was his work in the field of analytic philosophy. Russell felt that, in a similar way to mathematics, philosophy could be grounded on a language that was inherently logical. He famously considered the question of whether current imperfect languages actually allowed knowledge to be possible. Since it was argued that philosophy at the time had to be based on inferences (since it was not based on logic) and inferences could be incorrect, Russell argued that knowledge was theoretically impossible.
Russell’s opinions in this area were formed as a result of the ‘revolt against idealism’ which occurred in Britain in the beginning of the 20th Century. This ‘revolt’ called for the introduction of the scientific empirical method to philosophy, after the British Philosophy that was heavily influenced by German philosopher Immanuel Kant had begun to decline.
Russell was a campaigner for human rights in the latter half of his life. He heavily criticised both Hitler’s and Stalin’s governments, accusing Stalin in particular of being responsible for ‘the torture of millions’ .He later went on to campaign against the Vietnam war, as well as campaigning in favour of nuclear disarmament. He issued the Russell Manifesto, which called for peaceful resolution to international conflicts. It later became known as the Russell-Einstein Manifesto, as Einstein signed it days before his death in 1955. This later led to the Pugwash Conferences on nuclear disarmament, the first of which was held in July 1957.
Russell’s work in this area, as well as his concern with freedom of the individual in his philosophical works, led to him becoming the inaugural recipient of the Jerusalem Prize in 1963, given to writers who championed freedom of the individual. He had previously won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1950, also because of his humanitarian and freedom-oriented philosophical writings.
Bertrand Russell died in 1970, aged 97.
Contributed by Julian Hewitt