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Bertrand Russell series

Russell in 1907

Logical atomism is a philosophical belief that originated in the early 20th century with the development of analytic philosophy. Its principal exponents were the British philosopher Bertrand Russell, the early work of his Austrian-born pupil and colleague Ludwig Wittgenstein, and his German counterpart Rudolf Carnap.

The theory holds that the world consists of ultimate logical "facts" (or "atoms") that cannot be broken down any further. Having originally propounded this stance in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Wittgenstein in his later Philosophical Investigations rejected it.

The name for this kind of theory was coined in 1918 by Russell in response to what he called "logical holism"; i.e. the belief that the world operates in such a way that no part can be known without the whole being known first. This belief is commonly called monism, and in particular, Russell (and G.E. Moore) reacted to absolute idealism dominant then in Britain.



The term was first coined in an essay by Russell in the year 1911. However the term became only widely known when Russell gave a series of lectures in 1918 entitled "The Philosophy of Logical Atomism". Russell was much influenced by Ludwig Wittgenstein, as an introductory note explicitly acknowledges.

Russell and Moore broke themselves free from British Idealism which, for nearly 90 years, had dominated British Philosophy. Russell would later recall in "My Mental Development" [1]that "with a sense of escaping from prison, we allowed ourselves to think that grass is green, that the sun and stars would exist if no one was aware of them ... ".

The principles of logical atomism

Russell referred to his atomistic doctrine as contrary to the tier "of the people who more or less follow Hegel" (PLA 178).

The first principle of logical atomism is that the World contains "facts". The facts are complex structures consisting of objects ("Particulars"). This he defines as "objects' relations in terms of atomic facts "(PLA 199) is a fact, either from an object with a simple property or from different objects, in relation to each other more easily. In addition, there are judgments ("Beliefs"), which are in a relationship to the facts, and by this relationship either true or false.

According to this theory even ordinary objects of daily life "are apparently complex entities". According to Russell words like "this" and "that" are words used to denote particulars. In contrast, ordinary names such as "Socrates" actually are definitive descriptions, according to Russell. In the analysis of "Plato talks with his pupils", "Plato" needs to be replaced with something like "the man that was the teacher of Aristotle talks to his pupils". Russell had already in 1905 criticized Alexius Meinong whose theories led to the paradox of the simultaneous existence and non-existence of fictional objects. This theory of descriptions was crucial to logical atomism as Russell believed that language mirrored reality.

Differences between Russell's and Wittgenstein's atomism

At the time Russell delivered his lectures on logical atomism, he had lost contact with Wittgenstein. After the First World War, Russell met with Wittgenstein again and helped him publish the Tractatus Logico Philosophicus, Wittgenstein's own version of Logical Atomism.

Although Wittgenstein did not use the expression Logical Atomism, the book espouses most of Russell's logical atomism except for Russell's Theory of Knowledge. (T 5.4 und 5.5541) By 1918 Russell had moved away from this position. Nevertheless, the Tractatus differed so fundamentally from the philosophy of Russell that Wittgenstein always believed that Russell misunderstood the work.

The differences relate to many details, but the crucial difference is in a fundamentally different understanding of the task of philosophy. Wittgenstein believed that the task of philosophy was to clean up linguistic mistakes. Russell was ultimately concerned with establishing sound epistemological foundations. Epistemological questions such as how practical knowledge is possible did not interest Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein investigated the "limits of the world" and later on meaning.

For Wittgenstein, metaphysics and ethics were literally nonsensical. Russell, on the other hand, believed that these subjects, particularly ethics, though belonging not to philosophy nor science, were of certain interest.

Influence and decline

The immediate impact of the Tractatus was enormous, particularly by the reception it received by the Vienna Circle. However, it is now claimed by many contemporary Analytic Philosophers, that the Vienna Circle misunderstood certain sections of the Tractatus. The indirect effect of the method, however, was perhaps even greater long term especially on Logical Positivism.

However Russell changed his views eventually; conceding that absolutely certain knowledge was virtually impossible. But it is precisely his willingness to criticise his own philosophical positions that Russell's influence on Analytic Philosophy continues to this day.

Like Russell, Wittgenstein eventually rejected Logical Atomism. This rejection culminated in the posthumously published book, Philosophical Investigations.


  • Russell B, (1944) "My Mental Development", in Schilpp, Paul Arturn "The Philosophy of Betrand Russell", New York, Tudorm 1951.

See also


  1. ^ Russell B, (1944) "My Mental Developement", in Schilpp, Paul Arthur: "The Philosophy of Betrand Russell", New York, Tudor, 1951, pp 3-20

External links



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