Russell had a distinguished background: His grandfather Lord John Russell introduced the Reform Bill of 1832 and was twice prime minister; his parents were both prominent freethinkers; and his informal godfather was John Stuart Mill. Orphaned as a small child, Russell was reared by his paternal grandmother under stern puritanic rule. That experience powerfully affected his thinking on matters of morality and education. Russell studied at Trinity College, Cambridge (1890–94), where later he was a fellow (1895–1901) and a lecturer (1910–16). It was during this time that he published his most important works in philosophy and mathematics, The Principles of Mathematics (1903) and, with A. N. Whitehead, Principia Mathematica (3 vol., 1910–13), and also had as his student Ludwig Wittgenstein.
World War I had a crucial effect on Russell: until that time he had thought of himself as a philosopher and mathematician. Although he had already embraced pacifism, it was in reaction to the war that he became passionately concerned with social issues. His active pacifism at the time of the war inspired public resentment, caused him to be dismissed from Cambridge, attacked by former associates, and fined by the government (which confiscated and sold his library when he refused to pay), and led finally to a six-month imprisonment in 1918. From 1916 until the late 1930s, Russell held no academic position and supported himself mainly by writing and by public lecturing. In 1927 he and his wife, Dora, founded the experimental Beacon Hill School, which influenced the development of other schools in Britain and America.
He succeeded to the earldom in 1931 and in 1938 began teaching in the United States, first at the Univ. of Chicago and then at the Univ. of California at Los Angeles. In 1941 he went to teach at the Barnes Foundation in Merion, Pa., after his appointment to the College of the City of New York was canceled as a result of a celebrated legal battle occasioned by protest against his liberal views, particularly those on sex. These views, much distorted by his critics, had appeared in Marriage and Morals (1929), where he took liberal positions on divorce, adultery, and homosexuality. In 1944 he was restored to a fellowship at Cambridge. In 1950 he received the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Prior to World War II, in the face of the Nazi threat, Russell abandoned his pacifist stance; but after the war he again became a leading spokesman for pacifism and especially for the unilateral renunciation (by Great Britain) of atomic weapons. In 1961 his activity in mass demonstrations to ban nuclear weapons led once more to his imprisonment. He organized, but was unable to attend, what was called the war crimes tribunal, held in Stockholm in 1967, presided over by Jean-Paul Sartre, and directed against U.S. activities in Vietnam. Almost until his death he was active in social reform.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.