It’s difficult to pigeonhole the work of a thinker like Bertrand Russell (1872-1970), a philosopher, logician, mathematician, historian, political activist, and prolific writer. From his birth, Russell was destined for a life outside the box. His parents were wealthy progressives and his secular godfather was actually the famous philosopher and economist John Stuart Mill. Russell commenced his university studies in 1890 after receiving a mathematical scholarship at Trinity College, Cambridge. The young student then became a young fellow in 1895 and published his first work the following year entitled German Social Democracy (1896). Russell taught the subject at the London School of Economics. In 1910 he became lecturer in the University of Cambridge, around the same time he began co-writing his three-volume Principia Mathematica (1910, 12, 13), a robust attempt to create a logical basis for mathematics. The work helped distinguish him as one of the twentieth century’s premier logicians. However, he’s also considered to be one of the founders of analytic philosophy, along with his predecessor Gottlob Frege, his colleague G.E. Moore, and his protégé Ludwig Wittgenstein. His philosophical essay “On Denoting” has been considered a “paradigm of philosophy.” In addition, Russell was also an anti-war activist who was imprisoned during World War I and outspoken in World War II. Consequently, in 1950 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature “in recognition of his varied and significant writings in which he champions humanitarian ideals and freedom of thought.”
The Problems of Philosophy (1912) is Bertrand Russell’s attempt to examine what he believes are the problems that will evoke constructive discussion in the modern world. In it he posits there is no reason to doubt the existence of external objects simply because of “sense data.” Russell begins the book by asking a simple question: “Is there any knowledge in the world which is so certain that no reasonable man can doubt it?” Such a question is Russell’s introduction to the need for philosophy, man’s attempt to answer such ultimate questions. Building his case from an example of a table, the author acknowledges varying points of view while examining the same table. “Thus, again, the confidence in our senses with which we began deserts us.” From the instance of the table Russell is able to deduce that, if humans are able to know a “real” table at all, such must be derived from inferences made from what is immediately known. These things that are immediately known Russell calls “sense data.” It does not take the author long to engage his interlocutor of sorts, George Berkeley, the man whose idealism Russell challenges. While the latter rejects the former’s absolute idealism, he concedes that Berkeley’s theory is worth investigating. The existence of matter dependent on the mind is not an altogether absurd concept: “Thus if we cannot be sure of the independent existence of objects, we shall be left alone in a desert, it may be that the whole outer world is nothing but a dream, and that we alone exist. This is an uncomfortable possibility; but although it cannot be strictly proved to be false, there is not the slightest reason to suppose that it is true.” Russell builds his defense on one fact: while the existence of the table can be doubted, the existence of “sense data” cannot. Therefore what we do with that data is crucial in epistemology. For Russell, it is sufficiently rational to believe that this “sense data” are really “signs” of the existence of something independent of our perceptions, not random phantasms. In this Russell is not diametrically opposed to idealists, who do no explicitly deny that independent objects can be extant. However, Russell’s defines idealism as “the doctrine that whatever exists, or at any rate whatever can be known to exist, must be in some sense mental.” And the logician is not at all ready to concede such a notion, even if the physical objects themselves differ widely from the “sense data.”
Russell also takes exception with Berkeley’s concept of “ideas.” While the latter was correct in applying subjectivity to our perceptions, by no means does this translate to a world whose existence is solely dependent upon those perceptions. According to Berkeley, that which is not perceived does not exist, even if that perception is only in the mind of God. But Russell discusses knowledge of “acquaintance” concerning the data of our outer and inner senses. This is an important concept in The Problems of Philosophy because of knowledge. For Russell, “The chief importance of knowledge by description is that it enables us to pass beyond the limits of our private experience.” All knowledge that something exists must in part be dependent on experience. This is the ground for Russell’s inductive reasoning where both experience and a priori principles are required for proof. As a result, the mathematician gives credit to Immanuel Kant for locating an a priori knowledge that is not purely analytic. He also pays homage to Plato for his theory of universals. According to Russell, “all truths involve universals, and all knowledge of truths involves acquaintance with universals.” The “being” of these universals is independent of their apprehension in the mind. Nor is their “relation” dependent upon thought, but belongs to the independent world which thought apprehends.
Russell divides knowledge into two broad categories: knowledge of things and knowledge of truth. He asserts, “a belief is true when it corresponds to a certain associated complex, and false when it does not… this complex unity is called the fact corresponding to the belief. Thus a belief is true when there is a corresponding fact, and is false when there is no corresponding fact.” This of course renders metaphysics invalid due to the lack of factual proof. Conversely, natural laws such as gravity are rendered highly probable by a combination of experience and some wholly a priori principle, such as induction. Intuitive knowledge, the source of all other knowledge of truths, is composed of two sorts: (1) pure empirical knowledge and (2) a priori knowledge. The latter offers connections between universals and enables us to draw inferences from the particular facts given in empirical knowledge. Russell’s work is aimed precisely at the field of knowledge itself. According to him, “Philosophy, like all other studies, aims primarily at knowledge.” The unity of scientific systems, though not achievable per se, will remain the aim of philosophy for as long as man wills to know the universe in which he lives.
For all of its intelligence, Bertrand Russell’s conclusion in The Problems of Philosophy is somewhat ironic. From his title, the reader is almost led to believe that the author wishes to answer the “problems of philosophy.” However this is not the case. In fact, according to Russell, philosophy itself doesn’t even offer us answers, only more questions. But in this fact the author finds solace. In the end, it’s by these questions that Russell believes our lives are enriched: “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.” This pantheistic vision is the telos for the “citizen of the universe” Russell wishes to become. It’s a naturalistic vantage point that exalts the universe itself as God. This kind of rhetoric is also pervasive in Russell’s Religion and Science (1935), where he remarks concerning the Copernican Revolution, “the dethronement of our planet from its central position suggests to the imagination a similar dethronement of its inhabitants.” To Russell, anthropology is subservient to cosmology. This is probably why he distinguishes psychology as the “least advanced” of the scientific departments of knowledge.
However, after such an incisive little book on the deep problems of philosophy, the only thing more muddling than the unanswered questions is the reason Russell wishes to keep them unanswered. It’s in the close of the book that the author reveals some of the inherent mysticism that he dabbled with throughout his life. For Russell, the chasm between creature and Creator is obliterated in a naturalistic divinity of sorts. Russell states quixotically, “The value of philosophy is, in fact, to be sought largely in its very uncertainty.” The premise of the book is that the value of a field of study should not be founded on any kind of “definitely ascertainable knowledge.” The statement is as shocking as it is confusing. Russell also states, “We cannot, therefore, include as part of the value of philosophy any definite set of answers to such questions.” To Russell, philosophy would not be philosophy per se without an ounce of intrinsic uncertainty: “Thus, to a great extent, the uncertainty of philosophy is more apparent than real: those questions which are already capable of definite answers are placed in the sciences, while those only to which, at present, no definite answer can be given, remain to form the residue which is called philosophy.” For Russell, philosophy is a recycling bin for the unanswered questions of science. And for him, this is no doubt an expedient for such a book as The Problems of Philosophy.