Solitary Pain: Bertrand Russell as Cognitive Therapist

By Overskeid, Geir | The Psychological Record, Winter 2004 | Go to article overview

Solitary Pain: Bertrand Russell as Cognitive Therapist


Overskeid, Geir, The Psychological Record


   Bertrand Russell was a prominent philosopher, mathematician,
   and political activist. It is less well known that Russell suffered
   from various psychological problems and developed his own method of
   dealing with them. Continuing a long philosophical tradition,
   Russell examined how faulty thinking may elicit painful emotions.
   Though seldom, if ever, mentioned among its harbingers, decades
   before the pioneers of cognitive therapy, Russell described the
   basic principles of this form of treatment. He also formulated
   promising therapy-related hypotheses that are yet untested--as well
   as making claims that seem plainly wrong. I discuss the relation
   between Russell's life, his thoughts on emotional problems, and
   how he came to attack his problems cognitively.

Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) is one of the great philosophers. Unlike many of his 20th century colleagues, he was a philosopher in the classical sense, contributing to all traditional areas of philosophy. He was also (among other things) a mathematician, political activist, feminist, and a Nobel laureate.

After a short period as a young idealist in the Hegelian tradition, his views changed. Further developing the tradition of earlier British thinkers like Bacon, Hume, and Mill, but also clearly inspired by Descartes, Russell became the champion of a philosophy modeled on natural science. He is regarded as a founder of analytic philosophy, the tradition that dominated Anglo-American philosophy in the 20th century.

In spite of considerable effort and success in fields such as epistemology and logic, more than anything, Russell is linked to his research into the foundations of mathematics. An uncommonly productive author, he also contributed to areas such as ethics, political and social philosophy, and the philosophy of science, as well as working on questions that are now seen as part of cognitive science (see e.g., Odell, 2000).

In several works, Russell also treated the problems of psychology. Several of the topics he discussed are still eagerly studied and debated (see Overskeid, 2002). Russell also authored an interesting work on basic issues in psychology, The Analysis of Mind (B. Russell, 1921). While clearly influenced by contemporary authors, indeed by both Watson's behaviorism and Freudian psychoanalysis, the book also contains Russell's own original reasoning, which to some extent anticipates viewpoints found in today's cognitive psychology.

No doubt Russell was influenced by contemporary psychologists. He also reciprocated, however, and influenced the thinking of psychologists-not least that of those belonging to the behaviorist camp. Very early in his career, B. F. Skinner read Russell and was inspired by his writings. Many years later, this influence could still be clearly seen. indeed, after Skinner himself and Freud, Russell is the most-cited author in Skinner's magnum opus, Verbal Behavior (cf. Morris & Schneider, 1986).

Russell was the scion of a family that had influenced the history of England during several hundred years--his grandfather was Prime Minister under Queen Victoria. Yet the Russells were also plagued by psychological problems, including, in some family members, problems of a psychotic nature. Evidence indicates a higher frequency of psychological suffering in several groups of very high achievers and their relatives (Ludwig, 1995; Nettle, 2001).

When Russell as a young man announced that he was going to be engaged, his family tried to thwart the marriage by pointing to the risk of hereditary madness. Russell later discussed the matter with physicians who said the risk had been exaggerated. Close to fifty years old he experienced something he had been long for for many years; he became a father for the first time. His second wife gave birth to a son and heir. The boy was called John after Russell's father and grandfather, and he was to be the fourth Earl Russell. …

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