Tag Archives: bertrand russell

Russell’s The Problems of Philosophy

I’ve just finished reading Bertrand Russell’s “The Problems of Philosophy”. I loved the book even though I disagree with almost everything he has to say.

Here are some modest reflections about it:

  1. This book is a perfect hinge between modernity and the twentieth century. On the one hand, Russell sums up the contributions of modern philosophers like Descartes, Spinoza, Berkeley, Hume and Kant to the theory of knowledge; on the other, he sets out the foundations of the new epistemology that developed in the first half of the Twentieth Century and gave birth to Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, the Vienna Circle, logical positivism and Popperian falsificationism.
  2. I was surprised to learn that Russell, for all his empiricism and positivism, was also a Platonist. That is, he thought that universals such as the principle of induction, mathematical entities (numbers, geometrical figures), the law of causality, etc. are all real. Moreover, Russell claims that they don’t exist as material entities but as perfect, immutable, immaterial forms. Russell is not willing to follow Plato in his mystic moments, and he’s not willing to embrace mystic readings of Plato’s dialogs. In addition, he doesn’t want to trace a very sharp division between doxa and episteme; as a good British empiricist, Russell sees a continuity between common sense and philosophical-scientific knowledge. He trusts our human instincts and claims that sense-data (the “sensible world”) play a very important role in providing raw material to our knowledge. But, other than that, he’s a full fledged Platonist.
  3. Concerning the last point: this is perhaps where we feel more alien to Russell now. After Sellars’ denunciation of the “myth of the given” and Quine’s holistic understanding of knowledge processes as always based on ontological commitments, we are reluctant to accept Russell’s lineal view of knowledge acquisition, which starts from value-neutral atomic data and uses it to build more complex and theoretical knowledge forms, such as knowledge by description (or inference). We now believe that sense-data are already penetrated by theory, and that our knowledge processes are circular (but not necessarily visciously circular).

 

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Bertrand Russell on the analogy between truth and justice

The following quote belongs to the penultimate paragraph of Bertrand Russell’s “Problems of Philosophy”:

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. Thus contemplation enlarges not only the objects of our thoughts, but also the objects of our actions and our affections: it makes us citizens of the universe, not only of one walled city at war with all the rest. In this citizenship of the universe consists man’s true freedom, and his liberation from the thraldom of narrow hopes and fears.

This is one more beautiful example of the point I’ve made over and over again, and that you can find, expressed in different ways, in such varied authors such as Plato, Immanuel Kant, Georg Hegel, Jean Piaget, Charles Peirce, Jean-Pierre Vernant and many others: that there is a fundamental analogy between truth and justice; and that this analogy does not merely consist in a formal similarity between both concepts, but stems from a common, deeper source: the struggle for justice in the realm of the practical affairs of mankind has evolved into the search for truth in the theoretical realm.