Bertrand Russell was born in England in 1872, the godson of John Stuart Mill. His parents died when he was three and he was brought up by his deeply religious grandmother. He studied mathematics and philosophy, and later taught at Cambridge University. He traveled widely, to China and Russia, as well as to the United States, where he taught for a brief period. His work covers virtually all areas of philosophical inquiry, from logic through philosophy of religion and philosophy of mind to ethics. He made major contributions to logic, especially with his Principia Matematica (written with Alfred North Whitehead), philosophy of language, and epistemology.
Russell received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1950.
Though he never was a doctrinaire pacifist, Russell's opposition to World War I and the Vietnam War, which he regarded as senseless slaughters, led to loss of his Cambridge fellowship and two imprisonments—on the last occasion at the age of ninetyfour. An agnostic, he debated the Jesuit philosopher, Father F. C. Copleston on the existence of God. He was asked what he would say to God, when, after death, he was asked by God why he didn't believe in Him. Russell replied, “God, why did you make the evidence for your existence so insufficient?” He died in 1970 at the age of ninetyseven.
Our first reading, from The Problems of Philosophy, is one of the most succinct, insightful outlines of the central notions of epistemology. Russell wrote in his preface, “In the following pages I have confined myself in the main to those problems of philosophy in regard to which I thought it possible to say something positive and constructive, since merely negative criticism seemed out of place. For this reason, theory of knowledge occupies a larger space than metaphysics in the present volume, and some topics much discussed by philosophers are treated very briefly, if at all.” In the first few chapters Russell defends a Lockean (see John Locke, Chapter 19) or representationalist view of sense perception, holding that there is a real world but that we never know it directly. Of special importance is his defense of the Correspondence theory of truth (chapter XII), which may be contrasted with William James's Pragmatic theory of truth (see James, Chapter 31).
In our last selection, “A Free Man's Worship,” Russell attempts to find meaning and morality in a life or world without God or a transcendental being. The world, Russell laments, is an absurd, godless tragedy, in which nature, omnipotent but blind, has brought forth rational, purposeful children who are superior to their mother, and as such can discover moral ideals with which to sustain themselves in this ultimately meaningless existence. Morality doesn't need religion for legitimation.