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Home > Dictionary of Science Quotations > Scientist Names Index R > Bertrand Russell Quotes > Mathematics

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Bertrand Russell
(18 May 1872 - 2 Feb 1970)

Welsh mathematician, logician and philosopher known for his work in mathematical logic, but was also active in social and political campaigns, advocating pacifism and nuclear disarmament.



I wanted certainty in the kind of way in which people want religious faith. I thought that certainty is more likely to be found in mathematics than elsewhere. But I discovered that many mathematical demonstrations, which my teachers expected me to accept, were full of fallacies, and that, if certainty were indeed discoverable in mathematics, it would be in a new field of mathematics, with more solid foundations than those that had hitherto been thought secure. But as the work proceeded, I was continually reminded of the fable about the elephant and the tortoise. Having constructed an elephant upon which the mathematical world could rest, I found the elephant tottering, and proceeded to construct a tortoise to keep the elephant from falling. But the tortoise was no more secure than the elephant, and after some twenty years of very arduous toil, I came to the conclusion that there was nothing more that I could do in the way of making mathematical knowledge indubitable.
— Bertrand Russell
In 'Reflections on my Eightieth Birthday', Portraits from Memory (1956), 54.
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Mathematics may be defined as the the subject in which we never know what we are talking about, not whether what we are saying is true.
— Bertrand Russell
In 'Recent Work on the Principles of Mathematics', International Monthly (1901), 4, 84. This sentence is part of a longer quote that begins, “Pure mathematics consists entirely…”, on the Bertrand Russell Quotes page of this website.
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Mathematics takes us still further from what is human, into the region of absolute necessity, to which not only the world, but every possible world, must conform.
— Bertrand Russell
In 'The Study of Mathematics', The New Quarterly (1907), reprinted in Philosophical Essays (1910). As quoted and cited in 'The Retreat From Pythagoras', The Basic Writings of Bertrand Russell, 1903-1959 (1992), 254.
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Mathematics, rightly viewed, possesses not only truth, but supreme beauty—a beauty cold and austere, like that of sculpture, without appeal to any part of our weaker nature, without the gorgeous trappings of painting or music, yet sublimely pure, and capable of a stern perfection such as only the greatest art can show.
— Bertrand Russell
Essay, 'The Study of Mathematics' (1902), collected in Philosophical Essays (1910), 73-74. Also collected in Mysticism and Logic: And Other Essays (1918), 60.
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Of these austerer virtues the love of truth is the chief, and in mathematics, more than elsewhere, the love of truth may find encouragement for waning faith. Every great study is not only an end in itself, but also a means of creating and sustaining a lofty habit of mind; and this purpose should be kept always in view throughout the teaching and learning of mathematics.
— Bertrand Russell
Essay, 'The Study of Mathematics' (1902), collected in Philosophical Essays (1910), 73-74. Also collected in Mysticism and Logic: And Other Essays (1919), 73.
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One of the chiefest triumphs of modern mathematics consists in having discovered what mathematics really is.
— Bertrand Russell
International Monthly (1901), 4, 84. In Robert Ιdoward Moritz, Memorabilia Mathematica (1914), 109.
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Only mathematics and mathematical logic can say as little as the physicist means to say. (1931)
— Bertrand Russell
In The Scientific Outlook (1931, 2009), 57.
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Physics is mathematical not because we know so much about the physical world, but because we know so little: it is only its mathematical properties that we can discover.
— Bertrand Russell
In The World within the World by John D. Barrow (1988).
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Pure mathematics consists entirely of such asseverations as that, if such and such is a proposition is true of anything, then such and such another propositions is true of that thing. It is essential not to discuss whether the first proposition is really true, and not to mention what the anything is of which it is supposed to be true. Both these points would belong to applied mathematics. … If our hypothesis is about anything and not about some one or more particular things, then our deductions constitute mathematics. Thus mathematics may be defined as the the subject in which we never know what we are talking about, not whether what we are saying is true. People who have been puzzled by the beginnings of mathematics will, I hope, find comfort in this definition, and will probably agree that it is accurate.
— Bertrand Russell
In 'Recent Work on the Principles of Mathematics', International Monthly (1901), 4, 84.
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Pure Mathematics is the class of all propositions of the form “p implies q,” where p and q are propositions containing one or more variables, the same in the two propositions, and neither p nor q contains any constants except logical constants. And logical constants are all notions definable in terms of the following: Implication, the relation of a term to a class of which it is a member, the notion of such that, the notion of relation, and such further notions as may be involved in the general notion of propositions of the above form. In addition to these, mathematics uses a notion which is not a constituent of the propositions which it considers, namely the notion of truth.
— Bertrand Russell
In 'Definition of Pure Mathematics', Principles of Mathematics (1903), 3.
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Remote from human passions, remote even from the pitiful facts of nature, the generations have gradually created an ordered cosmos [mathematics], where pure thought can dwell in its natural home...
— Bertrand Russell
'The Study of Mathematics', Philosophical Essays (1910), 73-74. In J. E. Creighton (Ed.), Evander Bradley McGilvary, 'Reviews of Books', The Philosophical Review (1911), Vol 20, 422.
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Sir Arthur Eddington deduces religion from the fact that atoms do not obey the laws of mathematics. Sir James Jeans deduces it from the fact that they do.
— Bertrand Russell
In The Scientific Outlook (1931, 2009), 77.
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The fact that all Mathematics is Symbolic Logic is one of the greatest discoveries of our age; and when this fact has been established, the remainder of the principles of mathematics consists of the analysis of Symbolic Logic itself.
— Bertrand Russell
In Bertrand Russell, The Principles of Mathematics (1903), 5.
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The human race may well become extinct before the end of the century. Speaking as a mathematician, I should say the odds are about three to one against survival.
— Bertrand Russell
Interview, Playboy (Mar 1963). 10, No. 3, 42. In Kenneth Rose One Nation Underground: The Fallout Shelter in American Culture (2004), 39.
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The nineteenth century which prides itself upon the invention of steam and evolution, might have derived a more legitimate title to fame from the discovery of pure mathematics.
— Bertrand Russell
In International Monthly (1901), 4, 83.
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The pure mathematician, like the musician, is a free creator of his world of ordered beauty.
— Bertrand Russell
In A History of Western Philosophy (1945), 33.
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The solution of the difficulties which formerly surrounded the mathematical infinite is probably the greatest achievement of which our age has to boast.
— Bertrand Russell
In 'The Study of Mathematics', Philosophical Essays (1910), 77.
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The true spirit of delight, the exaltation, the sense of being more than man, which is the touchstone of highest excellence, is to be found in mathematics as surely as in poetry.
— Bertrand Russell
Essay, 'The Study of Mathematics' (1902), collected in Philosophical Essays (1910), 73-74. Also collected in Mysticism and Logic: And Other Essays (1919), 60.
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The world of mathematics, which you condemn, is really a beautiful world; it has nothing to do with life and death and human sordidness, but is eternal, cold and passionless. To me, pure, mathematics is one of the highest forms of art; it has a sublimity quite special to itself, and an immense dignity derived, from the fact that its world is exempt I, from change and time. I am quite serious in this. The only difficulty is that none but mathematicians can enter this enchanted region, and they hardly ever have a sense of beauty. And mathematics is the only thing we know of that is capable of perfection; in thinking about it we become Gods.
— Bertrand Russell
Letter to Helen Thomas (30 Dec 1901). Quoted in Nicholas Griffin (ed.), The Selected Letters of Bertrand Russell (1992), Vol. 1, 224.
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To a mind of sufficient intellectual power, the whole of mathematics would appear trivial, as trivial as the statement that a four-footed animal is an animal. (1959)
— Bertrand Russell
My Philosophical Development (1995), 207.
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What is best in mathematics deserves not merely to be learnt as a task, but to assimilated as a part of daily thought, and brought again and again before the mind with ever-renewed encouragement.
— Bertrand Russell
Essay, 'The Study of Mathematics' (1902), collected in Philosophical Essays (1910), 73-74. Also collected in Mysticism and Logic: And Other Essays (1919), 60.
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What is this subject, which may be called indifferently either mathematics or logic? Is there any way in which we can define it? Certain characteristics of the subject are clear. To begin with, we do not, in this subject, deal with particular things or particular properties: we deal formally with what can be said about any thing or any property. We are prepared to say that one and one are two, but not that Socrates and Plato are two, because, in our capacity of logicians or pure mathematicians, we have never heard of Socrates or Plato. A world in which there were no such individuals would still be a world in which one and one are two. It is not open to us, as pure mathematicians or logicians, to mention anything at all, because, if we do so we introduce something irrelevant and not formal.
— Bertrand Russell
In Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy (1920), 196-197.
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When it was first proposed to establish laboratories at Cambridge, Todhunter, the mathematician, objected that it was unnecessary for students to see experiments performed, since the results could be vouched for by their teachers, all of them of the highest character, and many of them clergymen of the Church of England.
— Bertrand Russell
In The Scientific Outlook (1931, 2009), 49.
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See also:
  • 18 May - short biography, births, deaths and events on date of Russell's birth.
  • Bertrand Russell - context of quote “A process which led from the amoeba to man” - Medium image (500 x 350 px)
  • Bertrand Russell - context of quote “A process which led from the amoeba to man” - Large image (800 x 600 px)

Carl Sagan Thumbnail In science it often happens that scientists say, 'You know that's a really good argument; my position is mistaken,' and then they would actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn't happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion. (1987) -- Carl Sagan
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