Personal Letters Reveal a Life Story

Article excerpt

BERTRAND RUSSELL was a profoundly influential figure in 20th-century philosophy - and one of the most visible spokesmen for radical causes from women's suffrage to nuclear disarmament.

He was, moreover, an extraordinarily fecund correspondent. The letters chosen by editor Nicholas Griffin in "The Selected Letters of Bertrand Russell" represent only a fraction of the material in the Russell archives, but well-represent Russell's brilliant, erratic personality.

A grandson of Lord John Russell, the champion of parliamentary reform who served twice as Queen Victoria's prime minister, Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) continued in his family tradition of working for political progress while reinventing the foundations of philosophy.

Although his groundbreaking work in analytical philosophy is comprehensible to only a small number of people, Russell was known among his peers and students as a brilliant, pithy, lucid, and witty prose stylist, who made these all-but-incomprehensible concepts as comprehensible as humanly possible. Russell is one of the few philosophers ever to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, which he won in 1950.

In addition to such seminal works as "Principia Mathematica" (in which Russell, along with his collaborator Alfred North Whitehead, laid out the logical and philosophical foundations of mathematics through the use of symbolic logic), Russell wrote numerous popular books and essays on philosophy, politics, and education that eloquently addressed a more general audience.

Russell was often in the thick of political controversy throughout his 97 years. Free trade, social reform, women's rights, birth control, nuclear-arms control, and sex education were among his many causes. He was a courageously outspoken critic of British jingoism in World War I. In 1940, he was fired from a teaching post at City College of New York on the charge that his free-thinking views were a threat to student morals.

Ironically, in view of his lifelong devotion as a philosopher to establishing solid, incontrovertible groundworks for any system of thought, Russell was a man of many contradictions. In the period covered by these letters, we can discern his keen gift for analysis, his emotional volatility, and a pattern of abrupt changes in the way he perceived himself and the world in which he lived.

Young Russell initially supported his government in the Boer War on the grounds that the British Empire was a force for peace: A "war of defence," he calls it in a letter to French philosopher Louis Couturat in 1900. …