On this day in 1872, a boy was born in Wales who would later grow up to pose many perplexing questions to the rest of the world. His name was Bertrand Russell, and he is remembered today as an important British philosopher, logician, mathematician, historian, and social critic. Russell held a good number of controversial beliefs in his lifetime and sometimes got into trouble for them. But he was a very influential thinker, and even contributed a great deal to the field of mathematics.
Yale University Press’ Little Histories collection is a family of books that takes a closer look at some of the most significant events, ideas, discoveries and people throughout history. As part of our ongoing coverage of the collection, here’s an excerpt from Nigel Warburton’s A Little History of Philosophy, a book that presents the grand sweep of humanity’s search for philosophical understanding from Socrates to Peter Singer.
‘Russell’s main interests as a teenager were,’ Warburton writes, ‘sex, religion and mathematics—all at a theoretical level. In his very long life (he died in 1970, aged 97) he ended up being controversial about the first, attacking the second, and making important contributions to the third.’
To put it very briefly, Russell got into trouble for his views on sex because he didn’t think it was all that important to be faithful to your partner. This naturally didn’t go down well with many people at the time. With religion, he was just as provocative—he believed that people only turned to it because they feared death. Finally, because of his keen interest in logic, a subject which straddles both philosophy and mathematics, he ended up making many important contributions to both fields.
Russell was deeply influenced by his godfather, John Stuart Mill, even though he never had a chance to speak to Mill properly since Mill died when Russell was still a toddler. ‘Reading Mill’s Autobiography (1873),’ Warburton explains, ‘was what led Russell to reject God’. And, like Mill, Russell had ‘an unusual and not particularly happy childhood’. His parents died when he was young, which meant he was cared for by his strict and rather distant grandmother. So he ‘threw himself into his studies and became a brilliant mathematician, going on to lecture at Cambridge University’.
One of the many things that Russell was interested in was the logical analysis of language. He wanted to scrutinise how our words actually relate to the world, and pinpoint what exactly made a statement true or false. With this goal in mind, Russell went on to develop his Theory of Descriptions. Warburton explains the theory as follows:
‘Take the rather odd sentence (one of Russell’s favourites) ‘The present king of France is bald.’ Even in the early twentieth century when Russell was writing there was no king of France. France got rid of all her kings and queens during the French Revolution. So how could he make sense of that sentence? Russell’s answer was that, like most sentences in ordinary language, it wasn’t quite what it seemed.
Here’s the problem. If we want to say that the sentence ‘The present king of France is bald’ is false, this seems to be committing us to saying that there is a present king of France who isn’t bald. But that surely isn’t what we mean at all. We don’t believe there is a present king of France. Russell’s analysis was this. A statement like ‘The present king of France is bald’ is actually a kind of hidden description. When we speak about ‘the present king of France’ the underlying logical shape of our idea is this:
(a) There exists something that is the present king of France.
(b) There is only one thing that is the present king of France.
(c) Anything that is the present king of France is bald.
[...] For Russell the sentence ‘the present king of France is bald’ is false because the present king of France doesn’t exist. The sentence suggests that he does; so the sentence is false rather than true. The sentence ‘The present king of France is not bald’ is also false for the same reason’.’
Sufficiently confused yet? This was simply one of many befuddling—yet profound—puzzles that Bertrand Russell devised in his lifetime to force us to re-examine what we think we know about language. He managed to do what every good philosopher does: take a good, hard look at our beliefs and ask ourselves why we believe the things we do.