Bertrand Russell (1872–1970)

British philosopher. He studied mathematics and philosophy at Trinity College, Cambridge, and subsequently held a variety of academic posts there and at other universities. He was a remarkably prolific writer who tried hard to make the arcana of philosophy accessible to lay readers in books ranging in breadth from his succinct summary of The Problems of Philosophy (1912) to his sweeping account of The History of Western Philosophy (1945).
Russell’s early work in philosophy, reported in The Principles of Mathematics (1903) and Principia Mathematica (1910–1913 with A. N. Whitehead) attempted to synthesise logic and mathematics into a single coherent system. His subsequent work extended the range of his analysis of the foundations of knowledge into the philosophy of science, reacting against logical positivism while resisting the opposite tendencies of *linguistic philosophy; his own version of the realist philosophy of science was eventually summarised in Human Knowledge: Its Scope and Limitations (1948).
The attitudes to the progress of science and technology manifest in Russell’s work shifted somewhat over time, but were always ambivalent. On the one hand, he tackled the confusions of theoretical physics in the context of his popularising endeavours, in The ABC of Relativity (1925). On the other hand, he continually manifested anxieties regarding the social consequences of the advancement of knowledge. While the memory of World War I was still fresh in his mind, he wrote a scathing reply to J. B. S. Haldane’s essay Daedalus; or, Science and the Future (1923), wittily entitled Icarus; or, The Future of Science (1923), which argued succinctly that because the progress of technology gave people more power to indulge their passions—which seemed to be mostly destructive—it was a bad thing, and might easily bring about the destruction of civilisation. The dispute prompted the publisher to bring out an extended series of *futurological pamphlets with titles in a similar style, under the collective title Today & Tomorrow, which eventually ran to more than a hundred volumes.
Russell elaborated the argument of Icarus in a more detailed examination of The Scientific Outlook (1931), whose final chapter drew a distinction between ‘‘science considered as metaphysics’’ and ‘‘science considered as a technique for the transformation of ourselves and our environment’’. In the former guise, Russell considered that science had been intrinsically disappointing, leaving the power generated by science unconstrained, ‘‘only obtainable by something analogous to the worship of Satan, that is to say, by the renunciation of love’’. By the early 1950s, however— after winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1950— this *Faustian perception was somewhat ameliorated in the essays making up The Impact of Science on Society (1953), whose final chapter conscientiously listed the factors threatening the stability of a ‘‘scientific society’’, comprising practical problems of ecology, and sociopolitical problems of ensuring equality of prosperity. The conclusion conceded that only ‘‘an infinitesimal minority’’ of people seemed ready, willing, or able to interest themselves in trying to solve these problems, but suggested that it might be too early to give up all hope.
Russell’s Faustian interpretation of the condition of a scientific society was echoed in the allegorical title novella of his first collection of contes philosophiques, Satan in the Suburbs and Other Stories (1953), which also includes a speculative account of an unprecedently sensitive photographic device, ‘‘The Infraredioscope’’, and three relatively modest satires of intellectual high society. The contents of Nightmares of Eminent Persons and Other Stories (1954) are more unrepentantly fantastic, the main sequences of vignettes including ‘‘The Mathematician’s Nightmare: The Vision of Professor Squarepunt’’ and a vision of the author’s worst fears about the future of technology fulfilled, ‘‘Dr. Southport Vulpes’s Nightmare: The Victory of Mind over Matter’’. The remaining novellas, ‘‘Zahatopolk’’ and ‘‘Faith and Mountains’’, are blistering satires on religion that have no doubt at all that the scientific worldview is absolutely correct. The ‘‘Divertissements’’ section of the mixed collection Fact and Fiction (1961) added two more nightmares and a complementary sequence of dreams, although its only item of speculative fiction was the parable ‘‘Planetary Effulgence’’ (1959), in which a divided Martian society fails to learn a crucial lesson from the tragic history of Earth. The contents of the first two collections were reassembled, with the fictional items from the third, in The Collected Stories of Bertrand Russell (1972).
Russell, who defined a pedant as a person ‘‘who cares about whether what he is saying is true or not’’, was somewhat distressed by the attitude of mind that regards logic as an enemy to be feared and loathed, but had to acknowledge that dissenters from that view were a tiny and beleaguered minority. This accounts for the fervency of his desire to popularise philosophy and science, for the slightly injured tone that much of his philosophy adopted, and for the sarcastic wit with which his popular writing was invariably decorated. He remains an exceptionally clear and articulate exemplar of an attitude that was very widespread during the twentieth century, which was both fascinated by the advancement of science and fearful of it, deeply committed to the notion that knowledge is good in itself while despairing of the uses to which knowledge was mostly put. That kind of ambivalence saturated the major fraction of the twentieth-century literary response to science.

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