A Worthy Introduction to Russell

Tom Flynn

Bertrand Russell: Public Intellectual. Edited by Tim Madigan and Peter Stone (Rochester, N.Y.: Tiger Bark Press, 2016, ISBN 978-0-9976305-0-3). 241 pp. Softcover, $22.95.

This appealing anthology profiles mathematician, philosopher, peace activist, sex radical, and humanist Bertrand Russell (1872–1970) through the lens of his status as a public intellectual. In the mid-twentieth century, Russell was perhaps a public intellectual par excellence; he was the only philosopher (and almost the only scholar) whom the general populace saw on television regularly, whether he was commenting on current affairs or getting arrested for his anti-war activism. This gave him much the same status vis-à-vis philosophy that Albert Einstein enjoyed vis-à-vis science at that time. The book’s coeditors, the philosophers Tim Madigan (a former executive director of what is now the Council for Secular Humanism and a former editor of Free Inquiry) and Peter Stone, have assembled a wide-ranging and highly accessible anthology whose ambit is actually considerably wider than its title would suggest. Bertrand Russell: Public Intellectual is actually a solid introduction to Russell, period. Peter Stone admits as much as the conclusion of his introduction to the book: “[The chapters to follow] will give you solid answers to the question—should you be reading Bertrand Russell?”

This is not to suggest that this broad focus is a defect in the book. In fact, one can scarcely do justice to Russell as a public intellectual without considering his whole life, at least in passing. Russell was the child of freethinking English gentry; his parents died when he was very young, and his upbringing was entrusted to a religiously conservative relative. (Obviously, the religion never stuck.) Early in his career, Russell excelled as a philosopher of mathematics. With his mentor Alfred North Whitehead, he wrote a towering work, Principia Mathematica (3 vols., 1901–1913), that endeavored to place a consistent logical foundation beneath the whole of mathematics; the Principia is still well-regarded today, even though Kurt Gödel demonstrated in 1931 that its quest was futile—the arithmetic of natural numbers is foundationally logically incomplete.

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