This is the third of three short books about philosophy that I read in January. It’s as unlike the other two as those two were unlike each other.

(Oxford University Press, 167pp, first published 1912, paperback edition 1959, edition shown 47th printing)

Bertrand Russell, lived a long life, from 1872 to 1970, and so worked mostly in the 20th century. He has always struck me as the first truly modern philosopher, partly because he was not trying to justify any religious background or upbringing, as so many of the earlier philosophers did, and in part because he addressed the entirety of previous philosophy in his enormous book A History of Western Philosophy, published in 1946. He seemed to me as the essence of a rational thinker who didn’t presume to just make stuff up, as so many previous philosophers did. At the same time he speculated on many things that modern science has provided decisive insights into.

Also, he was a public intellectual in the sense that he wrote articles, and books, on numerous political, cultural, and moral issues. I first encountered him with his 1927 book Why I Am Not a Christian, which I first read back in 1979, and revisited its title essay in 2017 in this post.

This book addresses the core of a particular theme of philosophy: how do we know what’s real?, how do we know what’s so? Epistemology and metaphysics. The arguments take “common sense” notions and drill down through them to core meanings, sometimes it seems to me merely academically, sometimes illuminatingly. The arguments are analogous, my impression is, to Russell and Alfred Whitehead’s attempt, in Principia Mathematica (1910-1913), to rebuild mathematics from the most basic concepts possible. (Which I have not read. I suppose it’s one of many books known by reputation than actually read.)

I will only briefly summarize the contents of this book, in about one bullet per chapter.

  • Is appearance the same as reality? The way we see a table is not the same as the actual table, depending on light, perspective, and so on. Some, like Berkeley, thought the table is “real” only in the mind of God; these were the “idealists.” Later philosophers agreed that the table actually exists, but acknowledge that there’s a difference between “sense-data” and “physical object.”
  • (Comment: right away, here’s an example of how philosophers have been blinkered by naïve experience. Today we understand that other animals perceive the world very differently than humans do. Doesn’t this hopelessly complicate these ideas that human perception was necessary for things to “exist”?)
  • Is matter real? Descartes, whom Russell calls the “founder of modern philosophy,” invented a method of systemic doubt, concluding with “cogito ergo sum.”
  • What is the nature of matter? Here Russell has an understanding of modern physics of his time, unlike earlier philosophers, who relied on notions of aether, of earth air fire and water.
  • He considers the notion of “idealism,” that whatever exists must in some sense be mental. Berkeley, again, who thought that things still existed even when no one observed them because they were perceived by the mind of God. Russell dismisses this. [[ Though there’s a notion here that resembles the idea of metaphor, that the mind finds alignment between two things… ]]
  • And then Russell gets more abstruse, by making a distinction between knowledge by acquaintance and knowledge by description. He calls general ideas, like “whiteness” and “diversity”, general ideas, or “universals.” [[ Whereas it seems to me that these are merely definitions. In particular, his “universals,” and those of previous philosophers, don’t acknowledge the diversity of human culture, and how what are essential concepts in one culture are completely different in another. ]]
  • Further chapters deal with induction, a priori knowledge [[ this is where a modern understanding of the evolution of the mind would solve issues he is puzzled by ]], more about universals, intuitive knowledge [[ again, evolutionary psychology explains such knowledge ]], the nature of truth and falsehood, knowledge and error.
  • The last two chapters are the most interesting.

Chapter 14, “The Limits of Philosophical Knowledge,” considers how many philosophers have professed to be able to prove, a priori, metaphysical claims like the dogmas of religion, or that the universe is necessarily rational. Russell discusses these, like Hegel’s view, and finds contradictions that render them all wrong… by way of mathematics by Cantor and others. He concludes that philosophical knowledge is similar to scientific knowledge, except that philosophy criticizes, searching for inconsistencies. [[ No no no, science does this too, through peer review and replicability and so on, far more thoroughly than philosophy does. Russell lived in an era before modern science. ]]

Chapter 15, “The Value of Philosophy,” asks the question and wonders why philosophy is not just hair-splitting (as some of this book seems to me). Well, he says, the “practical man” recognizes only material needs; philosophy provides food for the mind. The value of philosophy is largely in its uncertainty (since all those fields that found certain conclusions became sciences; philosophy is what’s left). P156.9:

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. To such a man the world tends to become definite, finite, obvious; common objects rouse no questions, and unfamiliar possibilities are contemptuously rejected. As soon as we begin to philosophize, on the contrary, we find, as we saw in our opening chapters, that even the most everyday things lead to problems in which only very incomplete answers can be given. Philosophy, though unable to tell us with certainty what is the true answer to the doubts which it raises, is able to suggest many possibilities which enlarge our thoughts and free them from the tyranny of custom. Thus, while diminishing our feeling of certainty as to what things are, it greatly increases our knowledge as to what they may be; it removed the somewhat arrogant dogmatism of those who have never travelled into the region of liberating doubt, and it keeps alive our sense of wonder by showing familiar things in an unfamiliar aspect.

This could as well be a manifesto against conservatives. But there’s more:

Summarizing the next couple pages: Perhaps the greatest value is that philosophy contemplates great objects, outside the circle of private interests. Ordinary life is doomed (we will all die); philosophy enables us to contemplate greater things. It does not divide the world into two hostile camps. It does not try to show that the rest of the universe is akin to man… that the world is similar to the self. The world is not a means to its own ends. Contemplation involves the non-self. Ideas that man is the measure of all things, that the truth is man-made, that what we cannot know is of no account, are untrue.

And of course: this is what science fiction, at its best, is all about. [Added 7feb24]. This point can be expanded upon. Science fiction, it’s long been noted, at its best, has exactly this effect: it raises possibilities outside the realm of familiar experience. It exposes you to different ideas. And removes the complacency in which you assume your own time and location are the best in the world, or at least typical, or maybe only average — none of those things are true.

Superficial science fiction (sf) merely translates familiar human scenarios — especially the good guy/bad guy plots of westerns and cop shows — into exotic locations, like a “galaxy far far away.” More sophisticated science fiction speculates about other modes of existence, whether cultural or metaphysical or even scientific (!), and thereby challenges the “arrogant dogmatism” as Russell puts it of conservatives who are certain how they and other people should live.

This is why sf is sometimes considered “philosophical fiction,” especially given that, even in the sophisticated realm of sf, the scientific background or content of the story is often implied at best. [end addition]

Last paragraph, p161:

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; because these questions enlarge our conception of what is possible, enrich our intellectual imagination and diminish the dogmatic assurance which closes the mind against speculation; but above all 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.

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