May 18 , 2010

 

Philosophical genius; aristocratic rebel

Academics ponder the complicated legacy of Bertrand Russell

Hamilton, Ont. May 18, 2010Forty years after his death, Bertrand Russell continues to inspire, baffle, provoke—and still draw a crowd: This  weekend, researchers and philosophers from around the world will congregate at McMaster University to discuss and celebrate the British philosopher’s legacy.

It has been 100 years since the publication of Principia Mathematica, the monumental three-volume work Russell completed in collaboration with Cambridge mathematician A.N. Whitehead.  Far from being a best-seller, Principia is better known by reputation than first-hand acquaintance. Russell himself joked that he knew of only six people besides the authors who had read the entire three volumes. Yet the book would become instantly recognizable by its initials alone to all logicians, most mathematicians and computer scientists, and many linguists and philosophers.

Whether in spite of or because of its daunting complexity, Principia has also gained popular cultural recognition. Its quest for mathematical certainty was depicted in the graphic novel Logicomix; it was referenced in an episode of Dr. Who; and it showed up on a British quiz show, which (appropriately perhaps, given the book’s legendary impenetrability) misidentified its convoluted proof that one plus one does indeed equal two.

Fascination in Russell goes well beyond Principia, says Andrew Bone, senior research associate at the Bertrand Russell Research Centre at McMaster University.

“He was a lightning rod for controversy, and was twice thrown in jail for his views,” says Bone. “Like Noam Chomsky today, he combined specialized academic expertise with numerous public intellectual activities and radical political commitments.”

Always provocative, Russell could also be a contradictory figure. He was an aristocratic rebel who embraced socialism but kept the earldom he inherited in 1931; he traded the establishment politics of his forbears–his grandfather was twice British Prime Minister–for a lifetime of dissent; he was a lover of peace, yet may have been prepared to wage atomic war on the Soviet Union during the early Cold War; he was the prophet (and practitioner) of a “new” morality that anticipated the permissive society of the 1960s but could not always keep his own jealousy in check when it came to his personal life.

In the collective consciousness of generations, Russell is probably fixed as the wizened sage of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament or a scourge of organized religion decades before the likes of Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins. Yet first and foremost Russell was a philosophical innovator who pioneered the sub-discipline of symbolic logic. His work influenced the development of modern computing and spawned revolutions in psychology and linguistics as well as philosophy.

This rich but complicated legacy will be debated at twin conferences at McMaster University from May 21-24: “PM@100”, hosted by the Bertrand Russell Research Centre, and the 37th annual meeting of the Bertrand Russell Society. Details are at: http://pm100/ and http://www.humanities.mcmaster.ca/~russell/brsmeeting

There is a close connection between Russell and McMaster, which bought the irascible philosopher-activist’s archives when he was in his nineties.

“Russell was an old man in a hurry,” says Bone. “He wanted the cash from the sale of his papers in order to continue financing his Peace Foundation, which was in the forefront of the anti-Vietnam War campaign”. 

Thanks to a quick-acting University librarian, a vast collection of correspondence, manuscripts and other artefacts (including Russell’s Nobel prize medal and even his writing desk) was scooped up by McMaster, making the University the centre of popular and scholarly interest in Russell. (Read “How the Russell Papers Came to McMaster”, by Nicholas Griffin, http://www.lehman.edu/deanhum/philosophy/BRSQ/04aug/griffin.htm)


For more information, please contact:

Nick Griffin

Director, Bertrand Russell Research Centre

McMaster University

519-647-3327

ngriffin@mcmaster.ca

Andrew Bone,

Senior Research Associate, Bertrand Russell Research Centre

McMaster University

905-525-9140 ext. 24896

bone@mcmaster.ca

Jane Christmas

Manager, Public & Media Relations

McMaster University

905-525-9140 ext. 27988

chrisja@mcmaster.ca

Michelle Donovan

Public Relations Manager: Broadcast Media

McMaster University

905-525-9140 ext. 22869

donovam@mcmaster.ca