Bertrand Russell’s Philosophical Loneliness

While not the most sympathetic, Ray Monk is perhaps the most thorough biographer of the English philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell. According to Monk, Russell felt lonely and separated. He felt trapped inside the prison walls of his self, and believed only another person could alleviate the agony of imprisonment by seeing into his soul. (For clarity, I should mention that Russell was one of those who used the word “self” to describe the conscious “I.”) This is the desire, so commonly met with, to find a profoundly understanding soul mate.

Bertand Russell

Bertrand Russell craved someone who could see into his soul and relieve his sense of loneliness and separation. (Image: public domain)

In reality, Russell was agonizingly self-alienated. As someone who stressed conscious reasoning above all else, he was partially cut off from his unconscious mind. The resulting isolation of his ego, or “self” as Russell would have it, was the source of his painful loneliness. A sound connection with the unconscious adds richness to life. A more plentiful supply of allusive symbols and subjective images would have balanced the dry logic of mathematics and the cold sterility of abstract reasoning that were the centrepieces of Russell’s world. He would have had a greater sense of meaning. In all likelihood, an improved connection with the unconscious would have enhanced his emotional life as well.

The remedy for self-alienation is self-knowledge and self-acceptance: wholeness, in other words. Russell’s craving for someone who could see into his soul indicates a desire for some other to do for him what he needed to do for himself. Self-examination, however, is not to everyone’s taste and some are unaware that deep introspection is even possible.

Russell was one of those who believe that their conscious thinking mind is who they are. His identity was entirely confined to his ego’s notions of who and what he was. This common mistake cuts a person off from experiencing the larger self (in the broader psychological sense of that word), which in turn leads to that feeling of being trapped inside the self-made “walls” of the ego. Such a circumscribed definition of who you are quite naturally feels like a form of dry impoverished imprisonment. There is a permanent ill-defined sense of lack. The typical inaccuracy of the ego’s definition of “self,” the infamous false persona, or idealized self-image, only adds to the problem.

Fear of the unconscious is the usual reason for choosing to believe that ego is all there is to a person. If you have banished (via repression) your undesirable character traits, thoughts, and wishes to the netherworld, the last thing you want to do is examine them. They might re-emerge to enlarge the ego with all manner of (to the ego) undesirable things. Yet, if you are to avoid Russell’s terrible sense of imprisonment and the agonizing loneliness of self-alienation, this is precisely what you must do.

Author: Thomas Cotterill

I am a manic-depressive made philosophical by my long struggle with the disruptive mood disorder, during which I spent sixteen years living as a forest hermit. I write philosophical essays, fantasy, and science fiction. My attempt to integrate creativity, psychology, philosophy, and spirituality imbues everything I write. You will find hundreds of related essays and articles on my blog. I live quietly in British Columbia's scenic Fraser Valley, a beautiful place in which to wax philosophical.

7 thoughts on “Bertrand Russell’s Philosophical Loneliness”

  1. There is a reason spouses are called “soul mates” as you specified in this article, because marriage is more than just material. In essence, it is a connection of the souls. But how can we talk about soul when we limit ourselves to visible things. Science only explains what it understands, that’s why science is considered a “religion” because you have to believe the things you can’t fully explain. And there are a lot of these unexplainable things.

    For example: how can we determine love or hatred or loneliness or joy? We can’t say they don’t exist nor that they are under human control, because we can’t choose who to love and when to be happy, even though we are suggested that power of will and optimism can overcome anything.

    So if love is not under human control, that proves that it is greater than human kind. Logically! That means we ought to see ourselves as not the center of the universe but rather to humbly and honestly question our very origin and purpose.

  2. Thanks, Ben, for taking the time to make such a thoughtful comment.

    I share your view that science is not entirely free of belief. However, we must remember that scientists—good scientists—do draw a line between what is verifiable and what is still “theoretical” or merely speculation based on a partial understanding. These individuals admit that some things are not amenable to scientific analysis in the strictest sense of the term, religious faith being a notable example. Grey areas such as psychology, sociology, political science, and anthropology, the so-called “soft sciences” are openly rife with unconscious bias, personal opinion, and subjectivity. Most serious followers of science see it as a long-term work in progress, one that will grow in understanding and knowledge while steadily diminishing what we must take “on faith.” This is quite different from the fixed comprehensive beliefs of a traditional religion.

    My position on will is that one gains a sense of purpose and direction by living according to one’s own genuine emotionally important ideas (the source of authentic will). I make no claims that the will can overcome anything. Striving for what one truly wills is inherently satisfying precisely because it does provide purpose and direction, a unified state of mind that humans seem to need. The journey is what matters most in life. As the German philosopher, Hannah Arendt has suggested, will can, and does steer a course between reason and emotion. Love therefore cannot claim ascendancy.

    Whether one is optimistic or pessimistic is a matter of temperament. Some folks are just naturally gloomy and feel that optimism is a sign of foolishness. Others are inherently more sanguine and see pessimists as needlessly negative thinkers. (As a manic-depressive, I oscillate between these two poles!)

    Science is notable in that it does not see Man as the centre of the universe. In fact, modern science has repeatedly outlined the uncertainty of our existence on this planet. Giant asteroids, ice ages, mega-volcanoes and so on could swiftly put an end to our species (as they have many others) while the cosmos endures unaffected. As you point out, we must continue to question honestly our origins and larger purpose, but surely, if life is worth living, then the need to survive and prosper can yield a purposeful framework within which to work.

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