Maarten Maartensz

Text Home - Philosophy - Russell - Problems of Philosophy - Chapter 15 - Notes


This are notes are by Maarten Maartensz to the text of Bertrand Russell's "Problems of Philosophy". Russell's text is in another file, that can be reached when on line by clicking on underlined "Back" at the end of the note.




Note 1: HAVING now come to the end of our brief and very incomplete review of the problems of philosophy, it will be well to consider, in conclusion, what is the value of philosophy and why it ought to be studied. It is the more necessary to consider this question, in view of the fact that many men, under the influence of science or of practical affairs, are inclined to doubt whether philosophy is anything better than innocent but useless trifling, hair-splitting distinctions, and controversies on matters concerning which knowledge is impossible.

It is a bit odd not to have started with an answer to this question. But I can be fairly brief about why philosophy ought to be studied in some sense and why the opinion that it is useless trifling, hair-splitting or in search of unobtainable knowledge is inappropriate.

All human beings orient their lives around ideas about what reality is like, that they believe explain their experiences, and ideas about what reality and human beings should be like, that they use to guide their behaviour. The first of these kinds of ideas is a metaphysical theory, the second an ethical or moral theory.

Human beings seem to need metaphysical and moral ideas because they are not born with instincts that determine for them what they should think and want, and are born with the capacities to make up their own minds and to question any belief they have or meet.

It is evident that most of the ideas in history that people have used to explain human experiences have been false or unfounded in many respects, and it is also evident that most of the ideas in history or direct human behaviour have been harmful to other human beings or to themselves.

On the other hand, it is also evident that whatever adequate understanding people have of themselves, of others, and of their environments and possibilities, is based on the asking and answering of the type of general questions that are philosophical and scientific, and that there seems to be no way of being human without trying to ask and answer such questions.

All ideas about philosophy or science, including those that ridicule or condemn philosophy or science, are themselves philosophical ideas, and such as declare all philosophy useless, trifling, or impossible are little better than a refusal to do any serious philosophical or scientific reasoning.

Finally, there is another important reason to study philosophy that is related to the points I have just made, and that Russell fails to mention: the ideas people live and die for, go to war for and kill each other for, or let themselves be inspired to the making of great art or science, are all philosophical ideas. Back.

Note 2: This utility does not belong to philosophy. If the study of philosophy has any value at all for others than students of philosophy, it must be only indirectly, through its effects upon the lives of those who study it. It is in these effects, therefore, if anywhere, that the value of philosophy must be primarily sought.

This is not true. The lives people lead and the choices they make are the result of the philosophies they hold, whether they are conscious of this fact or not. Much of the history of the 20th century - "The Century of Total War", in Raymond Aron's apt phrase, which is the title of one of his books - is the more or less direct product of a small number of philosophical ideas and the philosophers who made them up: Marxism ruled the lives of more than a 1000 million people; Fascism destroyed the lives of millions of people and caused a World War; both Marxism and Fascism were opposed by men in the name of Liberalism, Democracy, Catholicism, Protestantism, or Science, each of which are themselves either specific philosophies or derived from more comprehensive philosophical systems.

So philosophy, or more precisely, philosophy's everyday appearance, which is a political or religious ideology, guides and misguides the lives of human beings, and every human being meets daily with many philosophical ideas, and makes or avoids many of his daily choices by appealing to and relying on philosophical considerations. Back.

Note 3: It is exclusively among the goods of the mind that the value of philosophy is to be found; and only those who are not indifferent to these goods can be persuaded that the study of philosophy is not a waste of time.

As pointed out in my previous notes to this chapter, this is a mistake. Literally millions of people have been murdered in the 20th century and other millions of people have been sent to concentration camps for what were, in the end, crude philosophical ideas (of the Marxist or Fascist variety, often).

The 'practical' men Russell mentions in his paragraph, whether they did the killing in the name of a philosophy or were the victims of men acting out a philosophy or stood at the side gawking, while declaring all philosophy useless or nonsense, were as philosophical - in the sense of being moved by general arguments about what the world is and should be and how human beings should behave - as any man, except that they were less conscious of that fact.

In any case, it is an illusion to believe that philosophy only pertains to the goods of the mind or only is of importance to a few intellectually gifted and curious individuals: whatever happens in society and whatever human beings consciously do and do not do to others and for themselves is based on general ideas and values that are very properly speaking philosophical, and this has been so since human beings started to think. Back.

Note 4: Philosophy, like all other studies, aims primarily at knowledge. The knowledge it aims at is the kind of knowledge which gives unity and system to the body of the sciences, and the kind which results from a critical examination of the grounds of our convictions, prejudices, and beliefs.

Russell's present passage is a fair description of philosophy of science, but not of philosophy, about which it may be claimed (and has been claimed by many philosophers) that it aims at a way of life, namely one based on reason based on natural and moral knowledge. Back.

Note 5: But it cannot be maintained that philosophy has had any very great measure of success in its attempts to provide definite answers to its questions. If you ask a mathematician, a mineralogist, a historian, or any other man of learning, what definite body of truths has been ascertained by his science, his answer will last as long as you are willing to listen. But if you put the same question to a philosopher, he will, if he is candid, have to confess that his study has not achieved positive results such as have been achieved by other sciences.

This is also largely mistaken. Philosophical studies of men like Marx and Nietzsche, as practically applied by their self-proclaimed followers, have in this century created and destroyed civilisations and the lives of millions of human beings. Back.

Note 6: The whole study of the heavens, which now belongs to astronomy, was once included in philosophy; Newton's great work was called 'the mathematical principles of natural philosophy'. Similarly, the study of the human mind, which was a part of philosophy, has now been separated from philosophy and has become the science of psychology.

This is true: many of the questions properly raised within philosophy so-called in earlier days are now raised and answered by special sciences.

But this changes nothing about the fact that human beings are such as to lead themselves by general ideas and values, while one of the tasks that remains philosophical, however many of earlier philosophical questions have now turned into problems of some specific science, is to try to integrate whatever specialised knowledge different sciences produce into one comprehensive view of reality and humanity. Back.

Note 7: There are many questions -- and among them those that are of the profoundest interest to our spiritual life -- which, so far as we can see, must remain insoluble to the human intellect unless its powers become of quite a different order from what they are now.

This is also mainly misleading: 'the human mind' is not so much a individual human's mind, though this must always be the foundation, as the coordinated product of the ideas human minds have produced in the past, and at least many of the questions no human individual can reasonably hope to solve himself can be solved by the efforts of many individuals through the course of time. Back.

Note 8: (..)  if the investigations of our previous chapters have not led us astray, we shall be compelled to renounce the hope of finding philosophical proofs of religious beliefs.

To put it otherwise: It is Russell's opinion that the assumption of a God and whatever comes with that assumption is almost certainly false. I agree. (What is curious is that, 'in this day and age', the great majority of men still believes in a God in some way, and that the ways these beliefs are held are nearly always irrational and fanatical, and very dangerous for those of a different belief. This last fact should give people pause who believe in an all powerful and benevolent deity. It seems to me that the most a believer in God is entitled to claim, within reason, if this is possible, is that he believes in something that is totally beyond human understanding.) Back.

Note 9: The value of philosophy is, in fact, to be sought largely in its very uncertainty. The man who has no tincture of philosophy goes through life imprisoned in the prejudices derived from common sense, from the habitual beliefs of his age or his nation, and from convictions which have grown up in his mind without the co-operation or consent of his deliberate reason.

No. The value of philosophy is the scope and clarity of mind it provides, especially as regards the fundamental general questions every human being somehow must answer, if only by tacit and blind consent to previous answers. (Incidentally, the value of any specific science, likewise, is the scope and clarity of mind it provides as regards the special questions the science aims to answer.) Back.

Note 10: In contemplation, on the contrary, we start from the not-Self, and through its greatness the boundaries of Self are enlarged; through the infinity of the universe the mind which contemplates it achieves some share in infinity.

I suppose these are noble sentiments, such as Baden-Powell would approve of. Personally, I am especially struck by the frequency of the capitalised term 'Self'. Back.

Note 11: There is a widespread philosophical tendency towards the view which tells us that Man is the measure of all things, that truth is man-made, that space and time and the world of universals are properties of the mind, and that, if there be anything not created by the mind, it is unknowable and of no account for us. This view, if our previous discussions were correct, is untrue;

And it may be well to insist why such an account is untrue: because for a statement to be a truth involves that there is something the statement is true of, and this is normally independent from what human beings think or want. Man may be the measurer of all things, and a judge of all things by means of theories based on his own guesses, but whatever men think that goes beyond their own experience is true or false apart from their experience. Back.

Note 12: The true philosophic contemplation, on the contrary, finds its satisfaction in every enlargement of the not-Self

Perhaps, sometimes. But Russell is in this chapter very freely indulging his proclivity for purple prose. My case for philosophical contemplation is simply that it aims at answering the questions that lie at the foundation of all societies and all human communication and interaction, and that all human beings must answer in some fashion and , if only by unthinkingly following someone else's philosophy of life. Back.

Note 13: The free intellect will see as God might see, without a here and now, without hopes and fears, without the trammels of customary beliefs and traditional prejudices, calmly, dispassionately, in the sole and exclusive desire of knowledge -- knowledge as impersonal, as purely contemplative, as it is possible for man to attain.

This too is a misstatement of what philosophy aims at and may bring. Those who want to acquire the state of mind described in this Russellian passage are well advised to specialise in some branch of very pure mathematics, not in philosophy, that is apt to find fault in many human endeavours, and to get into trouble with others for that reason.

And it may be well to remind the reader at this point that many of the persons known to later times as great philosophers, were, in their own time, persecuted, discriminated, killed, or removed from society.(This applies i.a. to Heraclite, Buddha, Socrates, Aristotle, Epicure, Lucretius, Abélard, Bacon, Ockham, Galileo, Descartes, Spinoza, Hume, Rousseau, Marx, Nietzsche, Peirce and Russell himself, to name some.The great philosophers have been the creators of the ideas and values many people oriented their lives around, but during their own lifes they were generally silent or in trouble, for they dared to say what their contemporaries did not want to hear, to discuss what they did not want to face, and to study and write what very few took interest in or understood.) Back.

Note 14: The impartiality which, in contemplation, is the unalloyed desire for truth, is the very same quality of mind which, in action, is justice, and in emotion is that universal love which can be given to all, and not only to those who are judged useful or admirable.

The whole paragraph the passage is selected from sounds more like bad religion than good philosophy, and strongly suggests that Russell suddenly has given up most of the lessons he tried to instil.

As to the specific selected passage: I do not see why one should seek the truth with impartiality or without self-interest; I do not believe justice - the quality of giving each his due merit - can be impartial; while a universal love that is extended to the useless and contemptible seems too good, or too hypocritical, to be true.

And to add some perspective to this last paragraph: My point is mostly that (1) one should try to have motives that are humanly feasible, and few human beings are capable of complete impartiality, no self-interest, or loving all while (2) this also is not at all required and that one can make do with less, such as good will and the sincere attempt to be fair in dealing with others and rational in one's own judgements to the best of one's abilities. Back.

Note 15: Thus, to sum up our discussion of the value of philosophy; Philosophy is to be studied, not for the sake of any definite answers to its questions since no definite answers can, as a rule, be known to be true, but rather for the sake of the questions themselves; (..)

This sounds just as history appeared to Henry Ford, and there seems to be no sense in studying a subject if all one cares for are the questions it poses. I have given my own reasons for studying philosophy in Note 1-10, but I would not recommend its academic study to anyone, for by and large academic philosophy is related to philosophy as is literary criticism to literature, which in turn are related as the oldest professionals are to real love. Back

Note 16: (..) because, through the greatness of the universe which philosophy contemplates, the mind also is rendered great, and becomes capable of that union with the universe which constitutes its highest good.

It seems to me that the size of the human mind has little to do with the size of the universe it finds itself in, and that the union Russell speaks of is hard to make sense of.

Having come to the end of this short book of Russell, that is an introduction to philosophy, I should mention a number of topics that do belong to philosophy that Russell has not touched at all or only very briefly:

  • logic: what are the foundations and principles of sound reasoning

  • language: what does language have to do with human thought

  • meaning: what is meaning and how do we succeed in representing one thing by another

  • ethics: what are the foundations of the judgments that acts or the men who commit them are good or bad, and in what sense are such judgments true or different from mere matters of taste

  • aesthetics: what makes beautiful things appear beautiful or ugly, and what is the use of having an aesthetical capacity

  • self: whether there is a self, and if so, what it is and what is its foundation, or, if not, what is the reason for this popular delusion

  • free will: whether human beings are in any sense free to act as they please and responsible for the consequences, or only determined to falsely believe they are free to believe as they please

  • death: whether death indeed is final, what is the point of fearing something one will never experience, and whether there is anything else than self-contradiction in the belief in a life or a judgment after death

  • happiness: what is happiness; how does one find it; and why should one look for it, especially if everyone seems naturally to know what feels good and what does not feel good

  • the good life: what a human individual should and should not do, believe and desire to lead a good life

  • the good society: what relations between human individuals contribute to the good life

I merely indicate the questions, many of which Russell himself has tried to answer in some of his many other books.

And I should end with explaining why Russell did not take them up in his "Problems of Philosophy": Because that was meant to deal mostly with epistemological questions i.e. questions about the nature, extent and certainty of human claims to knowledge.

But indeed it would have been better if he said so more clearly, either at the beginning or the end of his book, if only to guard agains misunderstandings. Back.