Bertrand Russell (1872–1970)

1. Brief Vita

Russell outlined his life and philosophical career in his Autobiography (Russell 1967-9) and in the autobiographical sketches of his 1924 “Logical Atomism” (in Russell 1956), in “My Mental Development” (in Schilpp 1951), and My Philosophical Development (1959). Born into an aristocratic Whig family in 1872, Russell was brought up by his grandparents, one of whom, Lord John Russell, had played a part in passing the great 1832 Reform Bill. Russell became interested in mathematics, especially Euclid, at an early age, and in 1890 went on to read mathematics at Cambridge. In 1895 he became a fellow of Trinity College and in the early years of the twentieth century collaborated with A.N. Whitehead on the formidable and revolutionary work which sealed his reputation, Principia Mathematica (1910-1913); this work comprised three volumes, but a projected fourth volume did not appear. His avowed pacifism in that period led to difficulties during World War I, and he was briefly imprisoned and removed from his post in Cambridge. Although he continued to publish works in philosophy during the inter-war years his interests focused more on social and political issues. He spent 1936-1939 in various universities in the United States and gave the William James lectures in Harvard; these were subsequently published in 1940 as An Inquiry into Meaning and Truth. After World War II, he continued his social and pacifist interests with work on world government and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. He founded the Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation in 1964 and died in 1970.

Between the end of the nineteenth century and his collaboration with Whitehead on Principia Mathematica, Russell evidently underwent a radical change of view. Beginning with an adherence to a monistic idealism and a deep interest in F.H. Bradley, he came to reject traditional metaphysics in favor of logical analysis. The point is put forcefully when he says of his change of heart:

it has led me to doubt whether philosophy, as a study distinct from science and possessed of a method of its own, is anything more than an unfortunate legacy from theology (Russell 1956, 325).

Russell’s formal work on logic and the foundations of mathematics during the period around 1910 was nevertheless closely linked to an attention to traditional epistemological issues. His introductory Problems of Philosophy (1912), for instance, discusses skepticism concerning inductive generalization, and after the completion of Principia Mathematica, Russell turned to issues about knowledge in science in The Analysis of Mind (1921), The Analysis of Matter (1927) and many shorter articles. The Analysis of Matter considered the implications of new developments in physics, such as quantum and relativity theory, while The Analysis of Mind addressed the general issue about the character of psychology as a prospective science. It also surveyed a range of specific problems about mental characteristics such as “consciousness,” “perception,” “habit,” “memory,” and “belief.” Throughout both books, Russell reiterates the views, expressed also in “Logical Atomism,” that new scientific developments have shown much earlier philosophy to be erroneous. They repeat the claim that philosophy must reflect the best available scientific theories:

I found that many of the stock philosophical arguments about mathematics (derived in the main from Kant) had been rendered invalid by the progress of mathematics […]. Non-Euclidean geometry had undermined the argument of the Transcendental Aesthetic […] (and) all that had been said by philosophers on such subjects as the continuity of space, time, and motion must be regarded as sheer error. (1956, 324) […]. Therefore, although each proposition in a science may be false, and it is practically certain that some are false, yet we shall be wise to build our philosophy upon science, because the risk of error in philosophy is pretty sure to be greater than in science (Russell 1956, 339).

Russell, like Whitehead, consequently thought that developments in physics had serious implications for our understanding of “matter” and “causality” as well as for a more general understanding of the underlying structure of reality. He held also that the changes due to developments in physics were bound to reflect on our understanding of “mind” and psychology. In “Logical Atomism” (1956, 325-43) Russell refers approvingly to Whitehead’s An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Natural Knowledge (1919) and The Concept of Nature (1920), and further agreed with the latter’s acceptance of the need to re-categorize experience in the light of such new scientific developments. Russell’s suggestion at this stage also had some similarity to Whitehead’s radical emphasis on “process,” since it placed a similar weight on “events”: “The world consists of a number […] of entities […] each of which […]may be called an ‘event’” (Russell, 1956, 341) But despite this early common ground, Russell’s and Whitehead’s philosophical interests tended to diverge after their collaboration on Principia Mathematica.

2. Russell’s Philosophical Psychology, 1910–1930

In commenting on Russell, I will confine myself to the earlier period of logical atomism and The Analysis of Mind, during which he shared a general philosophical outlook with Whitehead although he was more strongly influenced by William James’s philosophy and psychology. The relevant works were all produced just before or during the 1920’s, after which Russell wrote relatively little on epistemology, metaphysics, and semantics until his later works in the 1940s, An Inquiry into Meaning and Truth (1940) and Human Knowledge, Its Scope and Limits (1948). Russell changed his mind on many issues throughout his long philosophical career, and even in The Analysis of Mind he notes that he no longer accepts his earlier criticisms of James’s doctrine of “pure experience.” The book itself is a general endorsement of James’s doctrine, which he refers to as “neutral monism.” Within that general framework it is also a commentary on some of the principal headings in James’s psychology and philosophy, such as consciousness, perception, introspection, memory, habit, and belief. But Russell’s approach is also heavily influenced by the general framework outlined in logical atomism. It is characterized not only by the priority it gives to science over philosophy but also by the reductive techniques derived from his logical work on the foundations of mathematics:

I and the chair are both logical fictions, both being in fact a series of classes of particulars, of which one will be that particular which we call seeing a chair […] if you wish to test such a theory as that of neutral monism […] you cannot hope to get any distance with your problem unless you have at your fingers’ ends the theory of logic (1956, 279).

The business of philosophy, as I conceive it, is essentially that of logical analysis followed by logical synthesis […]. The most important part […] consists in criticizing and clarifying notions which are […] accepted uncritically. As instances I might mention: mind, matter, consciousness, knowledge, experience, causality [… which are…] essentially infected with vagueness, incapable of forming any exact science (1956, 341).

I think that practically all traditional metaphysics is filled with mistakes due to bad philosophical grammar. (Russell 1956, 269).

These passages make plain Russell’s commitment to the techniques of logic, to an ontology derived from the results of logical analysis, and to a therapy designed to correct both traditional metaphysics and common beliefs and concepts.

In The Analysis of Mind Russell poses one central question and gives a firm answer to it. The question is put in terms of the difference between the two disciplines of physics, or physiology, and psychology, but it is directed at traditional, especially Cartesian, conceptions of the substantial divergence between matter and mind. Russell’s general answer is to claim that the difference between the two disciplines has been greatly exaggerated and that recent developments in both physics and psychology effect a “rapprochement” between them. In the Preface (1921, 5) Russell identifies these reconciling tendencies on one side as the materialistic approach to psychology evident in behaviorism and neurophysiology, and on the other side as the physicists’ tendency, under the influence of Einstein, to make ‘‘matter less and less material.” The world described by physics, according to Russell, no longer consists of a “matter more solid and indubitable than mind,” but of ‘‘events from which ‘matter’ is derived by a logical construction.” Later in the lecture on introspection the point is explained in more detail:

The difference between mind and matter is increased partly by emphasizing these supposed introspective data, partly by the supposition that matter is composed of atoms or electrons or whatever units physics may at the moment prefer. As against this latter supposition I contend that the ultimate constituents of matter are not atoms or electrons, but sensations […]. I propose to argue that thoughts, beliefs, desires, pleasures, pains and emotions are all built up out of sensations, and that there is reason to think that images do not differ from sensations in their intrinsic character. We thus effect a mutual rapprochement of mind and matter, and reduce the ultimate data of introspection to images alone (Russell 1921, 121).

The proposed rapprochement is all the more striking given that for Russell sensations are subject to physical laws, while what is ordinarily considered distinctive of mental phenomena—their subjectivity, consciousness, and special mode of causation—is not sufficient to separate mind from matter. For Russell subjectivity is too narrow a criterion to define mind, since even sensations and other features such as thoughts, beliefs and desires are subject to physical laws. That which is residually “subjective” turns out to be nothing more than mental images. What he calls “mnemic causation,” that is a capacity to change behavior as a result of past effects, can be found in both physical and mental phenomena. Memories, habits and learning are typically mental phenomena subject to mnemic causation, but magnetized steel behaves in different ways as a result of a past intervention, and habits may be ultimately reliant on the physical characteristics of nervous tissue. These factors encourage Russell towards the materialistic view canvassed by behaviorism, although he makes some qualifications to the strict doctrines of J. B Watson.

Russell invited Watson to comment on his text before publication and generally approved of Watson’s emphasis on behavior, but he thought that a strict behaviorism went too far in reducing all mental phenomena to physical laws. For Russell mental images could not be accepted simply as physical phenomena and Watson’s opposition was consequently criticized as a denial of “plain facts in the interests of a theory” (Russell 1921, 152; cf. 202-204). In a similar way Russell approved of James’s attack on ordinary notions of “consciousness” in his paper, “Does Consciousness Exist?” (James 1912, 1-38). In these developments Russell’s thesis exhibits a clear drive towards materialism but this claim has to be qualified in two ways. First Russell explicitly dissociates his own views from traditional theories, such as materialism and idealism:

Idealists, materialists, and ordinary mortals have been in agreement on one point: that they knew sufficiently what they meant by the words ‘mind’ and ‘matter’ […]. Yet it was in just this point […] that they seem to me to have been in error (Russell 1921, 10).

Any attempt to classify modern views, such as I propose, from the old standpoint of materialism and idealism is only misleading (Russell 1921, 34).

Second, despite Russell’s proposed rapprochement between physics and psychology, he also regards psychology as having a primacy over physics:

All our data, both in physics and psychology, are subject to psychological causal laws; but physical causal laws, at least in traditional physics, can only be stated in terms of matter, which is both inferred and constructed, never a datum. In this respect psychology is nearer to what actually exists (Russell 1921, 308).

Such a conclusion fits with his claim that “the ultimate constituents of matter are not atoms or electrons but sensations” (Russell 1921, 121), but it remains to be seen whether, and how, these apparently divergent trends in Russell might be reconciled. For the moment it suffices to recognize that a central motive in all these tendencies, which Russell shared with both James and Whitehead, was to reject the traditional Cartesian bifurcation of mind and matter. Russell thought that the new physics demonstrated that matter was more mind-like than was commonly thought and that correspondingly a proper understanding of what we ordinarily think of as mental phenomena located them much more solidly within the scope of physics. Within this general framework I will consider the following specific topics in the next three sections: the criticism of consciousness (Section 3); neutral monism and perception (Section 4); and belief and semantics (Section 5).

3. The Criticism of Consciousness

Russell takes a traditional Cartesian conception of consciousness to claim to provide a necessary and sufficient condition for mentality. Following James’s criticism of Cartesianism in “Does Consciousness exist?” Russell eventually incorporated ideas of Brentano, Meinong, Watson and Freud to formulate his own account of neutral monism. These additions make Russell’s account more comprehensive than James’s, but they also tend to be based more narrowly on Meinong’s views. Russell criticizes Meinong’s version of Brentano’s famous appeal to an “intentional” element in mental phenomena rather than Brentano himself. Brentano’s familiar doctrine is captured in his view that:

Every psychical phenomenon is characterized by what the scholastics of the Middle Ages called the intentional (also the mental) inexistence of an object, and what we […] would call relation to a content, direction towards an object (which is not here to be understood as a reality), or immanent objectivity […]. This intentional inexistence is exclusively peculiar to psychical phenomena (Brentano 1874, 115; quoted in Russell 1921, 14-15).

That account of “intentionality” became influential later in the twentieth century, but its association with opacity of reference within propositional operators was also generally recognized to extend beyond mental phenomena. It is distinctive of belief operators, for example, that references within the proposition believed do not require the actual existence of corresponding objects, and that such belief claims are consequently not truth functions of the proposition believed. For example, Smith may believe that “X is Y,” regardless of whether the proposition “X is Y” is true or false. This holds also for modal operators, as in the proposition “It is possible that P,” whose truth or falsity is not determined by the truth or falsity of P itself. These claims are partially noted by Russell himself in his discussion of belief, but in the account of consciousness it is Meinong’s version of the view which is criticized.

Russell’s central objections arise from Meinong’s triple distinction in mental acts between the act as such, its content, and its object. Meinong held that every genuine mental act had all three aspects, and this committed him to the “existence” or “subsistence” of the mental object, when concerning fictional, imaginary or self-contradictory items. Russell’s robust sense of reality did not allow him to accept this and he cites natural cases where the basic premise falls down. In the chapter on consciousness Russell first questions the presence of any act of thinking which he says seems “unnecessary and fictitious” (Russell 1921, 17). Later, however, Russell accepts that belief contains three parallel elements: “believing” (act), “what is believed” (content), and “the objective” (object). Russell’s threefold distinction is not exactly the same as Meinong’s but its acknowledged similarity suggests that the earlier criticism is somewhat unfair to Meinong. Later philosophers such as T. Parsons and E. Zalta have treated Meinong’s views more sympathetically, and in Zalta (1983) there is an extended formal treatment of Meinong’s position.

Russell provides other more decisive objections to the idea that consciousness is necessary and sufficient for mentality. In imagination, he suggests, there may be both an act and a content but not an actual object; while in some forms of perception associated especially with animals we might hold that there are acts and objects but no contents. The issue of what has been called “non-conceptual content” in such animal perception has since become a lively issue among philosophers. Russell cites Freudian psychoanalysis in support of the existence of unconscious desires, and refers to behaviorism as justifying the ascription of mental powers to dumb animals. Consciousness, as traditionally conceived, seems not to be strictly necessary for mental events. It is true that in the cases of both Freudian psychoanalysis and behaviorism, Russell qualifies his endorsement. He thinks that the Freudian unconscious needs to be demythologized and treated in a behaviorist manner. But he also thinks that Watson’s strict behaviorism goes too far in its denial that subjects have a unique, conscious access to their own thoughts. Russell concedes mischievously that it is somewhat “humiliating to find how terribly adequate it is” to dispense (as he says behaviorists do) with the supposition that people think.

Russell concludes that consciousness does not provide an adequate criterion to distinguish mental from physical phenomena. Although he differs from behaviorists in allowing a fallible form of introspective access to one’s own experiences, and holds that mental images cannot at present be shown to be subject to physical laws, he regards these as special cases. Despite the existence of those special cases, he thinks that they should not be allowed to distract us from a natural inclination which makes a materialist explanation of mental phenomena “more probable” (Russell 1921, 303). Russell further insists that the proper criterion to distinguish the mental from the physical is not a list of specifically mental features such as subjectivity, but the extent to which both are subject to physical laws. On that criterion his view is that almost nothing that we commonly regard as mental needs to be exempted from such laws. Although he distinguishes laws such as that of gravity as specifically physical from mental laws of association or habit, he also believes that the mnemic laws involved in the latter have parallels in both the physical and the mental world. The mnemic capacity to change responses to the environment in the light of past effects belongs to physical objects as well as to minds. The central difference in the two cases is that the latter concern living tissue which is itself a physical item (Russell 1921, 131); there is no justification for the Cartesian dichotomy between mental and physical substances.

4. Neutral Monism and Perception

Russell’s account of consciousness and his more general rejection of Cartesian dualism lead him also to endorse James’s conception of a “pure experience.” Russell calls his doctrine “neutral monism,” and it has implications both for specific mental phenomena such as perception and for a correct grasp of the distinction between mind and matter. His idea, like James’s, is that “mind” and “matter” do not name separate, ultimate categories of phenomena in experience, but are rather only partitions of a more ultimate stuff, itself neither mental nor physical. This forms the primary ground for Russell’s general thesis that a rapprochement between the two topics of enquiry is feasible, which might resolve the ancient Cartesian puzzle of their apparent separation. He says in the Preface of The Analysis of Mind that “the stuff of the world is neither mental nor material but a neutral stuff out of which both are constructed.” Later, he writes about

the true metaphysic, in which mind and matter alike are seen to be constructed out of a neutral stuff, whose causal laws have no such duality as that of psychology, but form the basis upon which both physics and psychology are built (Russell 1921, 287).

Russell criticizes James’s use of the term “pure experience” because he thinks it too resonant of Cartesianism, and hence prefers the term “neutral monism.” But Russell also provides more detail than James in explaining how the partition of that ultimate “stuff” enables us to discriminate between what we ordinarily treat as “mental” on one side, and “physical” on the other.

Russell has two related ways of canvassing the rapprochement between physics (matter) and psychology (mind). In one, noted above, he envisages the category of “event” as an ultimate replacement for the normally favored categories of “thing” or “substance;” in the other, he provides analyses of the central psychological capacities, such as consciousness, perception, and thinking. In The Analysis of Mind, his preference is for logical analysis, of which the clearest illustration is provided by the account of perception. For Russell sensations cover strictly only what is immediately given to the senses; they exclude the added understanding of, and inferences from, what is given by past experience, memory, and concepts. Perception, which admits those additional items, qualifies consequently as a paradigm example of what Russell calls a “mnemic” phenomenon. It marks a counterfactual capacity for new forms of response on the basis of past experience. Russell makes clear that perception is what we normally experience, since it is inevitably linked to those inferred features. He makes the point that to identify what counts strictly as a sensation is difficult and requires the special expertise of the painter or psychologist.

In the account of perception Russell assumes, for the sake of the argument, the existence and causal powers of external objects, and with that the premises of what he calls “traditional physics,” even though ultimately he wishes to supplant traditional physics. The central point in his account is to explain how two different groupings of data give rise to conceptions of an object on one side and a set of experiences on the other. In this exercise, he provides more elaboration for the “grid” metaphor, which James had used in order to reflect the same idea that mind and body are merely two different ways of partitioning the same underlying and neutral stuff.

Russell’s elaboration uses the two terms “perspective” and “biography” to mark these partitions, but neither expression is used in quite the standard way. The distinction is explained in terms of an audience’s experience of an actor on stage. We can first collect a set of the actor’s “aspects” or “appearances”, which are themselves attached to the various members of the audience at a particular time. Second, that set can be associated with a further series of such sets corresponding to the actor’s appearances over time. Once that second step has been taken, we have provided an adequate analysis of that object over the period during which it was observed by that audience. That conclusion has to be qualified, however, by noting that for Russell the object so analyzed is itself shown to be a “logical fiction,” since it turns out to be a series of classes of appearances. Appearances themselves might be regarded as the basic existents out of which such a fiction is constructed, or else may themselves be based on more ultimate sensational events. But by comparison with either of those accounts the object itself is a logical construction and so, in Russell’s sense, fictional.

In a different construction with nevertheless the same outcome the initial focus might be on some individual member of the audience and the series of his experiences of the actor over a period of time. Subsequently, the various series associated with different members of the audience can be unified in a set that captures the actor’s behavior as experienced by the whole audience. Russell calls the view of the world from a particular place a “perspective,” and the series associated with a specific response a “biography,” but some qualifications need to be made to this account. The major qualification Russell notes is that a biography is not exactly what we should think of as a personal, inner, unified experience of some item over time. It would be identified just as much in a photographic plate that records the impact of light on its sensitive emulsion. Photographic plates have biographies and perspectives just as persons do, and their physical responses to some object could just as well be included among the series of sets that go towards the construction of an object. This leads to the narrower definition of “perception” as the “appearance of the object from a place where there is a brain […] with sense-organs and nerves forming part of the intervening medium” (Russell 1921, 131). In this account, Russell’s technical term “appearance” is apt to mislead; it is not restricted to sentient responses, signifies only effects registered at particular places, and consequently has no distinctive psychological relevance (Russell 1921, 100-101).

Russell, like James, presents his doctrine both as an analysis of perception and as an ontological conclusion about the ultimate stuff of reality. On the analytic side, two related queries arise about the character of the basic data out of which the sets, series, perspectives and biographies are constructed, and the relation which the basic data have to the general theory. Russell’s account might naturally be seen as a material phenomenalism in which both minds and matter are derived or constructed from basic appearances, but that raises two doubts about the underlying theory of neutral monism. A first objection is that the basic data in the account do not seem to be neutral between mind and matter, since they are “appearances” of the assumed objects. It would be natural to reply that since for Russell appearances include such physical responses as the effects of light reflected from an object onto a photographic plate, they are not necessarily sentient or what we ordinarily think of as appearances. The initial objection may be seen as a failure to grasp Russell’s technical use of “appearance.” But this response could be met with the rejoinder that the data, as Russell represents them, are sometimes what we would classify as mental experiences and sometimes what we would call sheer physical phenomena. It does not yet suggest that the data should be regarded as neither mental nor physical.

A symptom of this difficulty arises in an ambiguity with which Russell characterizes the logical relations involved in the analysis. Officially the doctrine is that the underlying basic stuff is neither mental nor physical, but he is inclined also to claim that neutrality is established not by denying the mentality or physicality of the basic stuff, but by the claim that it has both characteristics:

My own belief […] is that James is right in rejecting consciousness as an entity, and that the American realists are partly right, though not wholly, in considering that both mind and matter are composed of a neutral-stuff which, in isolation, is neither mental nor physical. I should admit this view as regards sensations: what is heard or seen belongs equally to psychology and to physics (Russell 1921, 25; myemphases).

As we have seen, the only partial exception Russell recognizes is the case of mental images, but his expectation is that even these will eventually succumb to a physical account. Whether that is so or not, however, his argument does not satisfactorily establish the existence of the alleged neutral stuff, and this is further confirmed by his evident inclination towards materialism. The consequence is that the account still leaves unresolved two related problems. The data from which everything is to be constructed are finally characterized either as mental or as physical and not as having a neutral status, which belongs to neither mind nor matter. If they are to be strictly neutral between mind and matter then it remains quite unclear how they should be characterized and consequently how the construction from the data is to be accomplished. The theory is left in a form that is as yet undecidable. Russell might retreat to a more standard form of phenomenalism, in which outer objects are to be constructed from inner, mental experiences, but that was not his original intention and such programs have not generally been successful.

In his concluding inference from the analysis to an ontological conclusion about the existence of an ultimate, neutral stuff, Russell offers more argumentation than James does. He can defend his inference by frequent appeals to “Ockham’s Razor,” according to which we should admit existents only in so far as they are strictly necessary. If the mental and the physical could both be constructed from some non-mental, non-physical stuff, then we do not have to accept either mind or matter as “ultimate” items. But that principle and its use in this context are open to some objections. First, as we have seen, Russell identifies his neutral stuff only in an ambiguous way. Second, Russell’s conclusion that mind and matter are fictions is not strictly necessary, even if the construction could be carried through. We may be naturally inclined to prefer the simplest theories, but there is no guarantee that reality itself actually follows “Ockham’s razor.” Russell recognizes this in one passage where he treats the goal of simplicity as a “prejudice” in contrast to a “well-founded theory” of logic (Russell 1921, 133), but this leaves the inference from analysis to ontology logically dubious.

5. Belief and Semantics

Russell’s account of belief follows a tradition in which that topic belongs to psychology and philosophy, but his discussion reveals new developments which distance the topic from that traditional interest. As a result, although the account does not significantly add to Russell’s theoretical rejection of Cartesian dualism, its practical analysis points to a quite novel way of dealing with mental events. We might say that the traditional exhaustive and exclusive alternatives of “mental” and “physical” are now replaced with wholly new categories, so that belief is treated more as a semantic than a psychological phenomenon.

A traditional account of belief, such as Hume’s in A Treatise of Human Nature and An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, focuses on the differences between belief and disbelief, or between belief and imagination. It locates that difference as a certain “manner of conceiving ideas,” i.e. as a certain kind of feeling. Although Hume associates belief with truth and falsity, he does not firmly separate the content of sub-propositional constituents or concepts from the content of whole propositions. He is consequently drawn to use his earlier distinction between impressions and ideas in terms of the former’s greater “force and vivacity,” in order to characterize the essential feeling of belief and to distinguish it from imagination.

So that as belief does nothing but vary the manner, in which we conceive any object, it can only bestow on our ideas an additional force and vivacity. An opinion or belief may be most accurately defin’d, a lively idea related to or associated with a present impression (Hume 1978, Book 1, Part III, § 7).

Belief is the true and proper name of this feeling […]. [It] is nothing but a more vivid, lively, forcible, firm, steady conception of an object, than what the imagination alone is ever able to attain (Hume 1955, § V, Part II).

Hume’s account is guided by three features which together create serious problems: it does not significantly distinguish propositional and sub-propositional contents; it focuses on the inner psychological feelings associated with the phenomena; and it draws on the description of earlier differences between impressions and ideas. These weaknesses do not necessarily show that Hume is wholly wrong, but they restrict the scope of the account and omit some of the essential features of belief and belief contents. The appeal to the vivacity of impressions effectively restricts the account to occurrent belief and fails to deal adequately with dispositional beliefs. The failure to distinguish sub-propositional constituents from whole propositions conceals the complexities in the relation between believing and the content believed.

By contrast, Russell’s aim in The Analysis of Mind was to take these complexities into account and to make them the central factors in an account of belief. His discussion was consequently prefaced with an account of word meanings and followed with a more formal treatment of truth and falsity. In the former, Russell, despite the priority he still gives to the meaning of proper names, nevertheless distinguishes different types of word with different types of meaning. Throughout his logical atomism Russell treated the relation between proper name and bearer as a paradigm for the meaning relation, but in The Analysis of Mind he also distinguishes the forms of meaning associated with general terms and other linguistic particles. In the former case, he changes his earlier view in The Problems of Philosophy, where he endorses the existence of universals corresponding to general terms, and now regards the traditional problem of universals as “insoluble” (Russell 1921, 196).

Complexity in the meanings of different types of word is less important in Russell’s new account than the complexity of sentence meaning in comparison with that of word meaning. Belief requires a content of propositional form and presents new problems arising from the typical form of belief ascription, “S believes that P,” which Russell now calls “propositions with more than one verb.” Such cases, which include mental states other than belief such as “hope,” “expectation” and so on, have come to be called “propositional attitudes.” In this new context Russell now endorses the triple classification of act, content, and object which he had earlier criticized and rejected in his account of Brentano, Meinong, and intentionality (Section 1 above). Belief involves an act of believing, a content believed, and an object (or objective) which determines the truth or falsity of the belief. The act of believing, as opposed to that of disbelieving or imagining, might be a satisfactory repository for Hume’s lively feelings but these are not the main focus of Russell’s attention. He is more interested in the relation of believing to its content and to its object. In this way he makes room for some residual Humean feeling, but also emphasizes a valuable reference to the intentionality he had earlier rejected.

The complexity of this new account of belief gives rise to new problems, and Russell devotes particular attention to two related issues: first, how to distinguish content and object in belief, and, second, how to account for the related concepts of truth and falsity. The former problem arises particularly if the meaning of propositions is understood in terms of the naming relation for words. For if it is required that to have meaning a belief must signify an object that is a fact, then it is hard to understand how a false belief can be anything other than meaningless. The requirement is that beliefs should have distinguishable contents and objects, and that to be meaningful but false they do not need to signify a fact. To be meaningful they still have to signify something and Russell resolves the problem by appealing to a device borrowed from Wittgenstein (Russell 1921, 272). The suggestion is that true propositions point towards their facts while false propositions point away from them. There is in each case only one fact, but true and false propositions relate to them in those diverse, and opposite, ways. In this way Russell can account for the meaning of false beliefs by saying that their meaning consists in pointing not to a fact but away from it. Knowing the meaning of a proposition consists of knowing what would make the proposition true (or false) but not knowing that it is true, or whether it is true or false.

Russell is modest about his achievements in this new context and calls his account so far “inadequate,” but in the sequel his account of truth points importantly towards later developments in what came to be called “semantic” theories of truth. The new problem that he envisages in the light of his more complex account of word meaning, sentence meaning, and propositional attitudes, is that of relating the structure of the meanings of the constituent expressions in a proposition to a possible fact which may then be verified (or falsified). Russell consistently accepted a “correspondence” theory of truth and this requirement can be seen as a way of elaborating such a theory. It assumes a principle of composition, namely that the meaning of a proposition is a “function” of its constituents, and then seeks to explain formally how those constituents with that function point to a possible fact. Russell in this way anticipates the later related developments of a formal semantic theory of truth (in Tarski 1983) and its natural language analogue (in Davidson 1984). Russell was entirely correct in thinking that these complexities in belief were needed for a full understanding of the phenomenon, but they point away from a limited psychological account towards those formal and informal semantic developments. He was also right to think his own account inadequate even though it pointed in a fruitful direction, but subsequently the formal theory in logic has proved more fruitful than its natural language counterpart.

6. Conclusion: Russell and Whitehead

Following their collaboration on Principia Mathematica, Russell’s and Whitehead’s philosophical interests and careers diverged. In that early period both insisted on the relevance of science to philosophy and both identified “events” or “processes” as the fundamental building blocks of experience. But subsequently Russell, unlike Whitehead, did not make that fundamental ontology the foundation of a philosophical system. Russell continued to insist on an attention to language and logic as the basic method of resolving traditional philosophical problems. He continued to advocate a reductive logical analysis as the best corrective for the vague philosophical views held in the tradition and by common sense. Whitehead’s philosophy became less formal and less committed to such logical methods, and had more in common with James’s philosophy than Russell’s. Whitehead’s interests, like those of James, ranged more widely over topics, such as religious belief, with which Russell had little sympathy. Russell also, unlike Whitehead, developed influential, public, social and political interests which lasted throughout his career.

Works Cited and Further Readings

Brentano, Franz. 1874. Psychologie vom empirischen Standpunkt (Leipzig, Felix Meiner).

Davidson, Donald. 1984. Enquiries into Truth and Interpretation (Oxford, Oxford University Press).

Hume, D. 1955. An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, edited by A. Selby-Bigge (Oxford, Oxford University Press).

_____. 1978. A Treatise of Human Nature, edited by A. Selby-Bigge (Oxford, Oxford University Press).

James, William. 1912. Essays in Radical Empiricism (London, Longmans Green).

Russell, Bertrand. 1900. A Critical Exposition of the Philosophy of Leibniz (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press).

_____. 1912. The Problems of Philosophy (Oxford, Oxford University Press).

Russell, Bertrand, and Whitehead, A.N. 1910-1913. Principia Mathematica, 3 Vols. (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press).

Russell, Bertrand. 1914. Our Knowledge of the External World (Chicago, Open Court Co.).

_____. 1921. Analysis of Mind (London, George Allen & Unwin).

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_____. 1940. An Inquiry into Meaning and Truth (London, George Allen & Unwin).

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_____. 1956. Logic and Knowledge, edited by R.C. Marsh (London, George Allen & Unwin).

_____. 1959. My Philosophical Development (London, George Allen & Unwin).

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Author Information

Graham Bird
Professor Emeritus, Centre for Philosophy, Department of Government, University of Manchester
Honorary Professor, University of Wales
Honorary research fellow at the University of Liverpool

How to Cite this Article

Bird, Graham, “Bertrand Russell (1872–1970)”, last modified 2008, The Whitehead Encyclopedia, Brian G. Henning and Joseph Petek (eds.), originally edited by Michel Weber and Will Desmond, URL = <>.