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Bertrand Russell

Bertrand Russell on The Value of Philosophy for Life

John R. Lenz tells us why Russell thought philosophy worthwhile.

Bertrand Russell did a disservice to philosophy by defining the word. Early in his career he defined philosophy as the logical-analytic method. This definition was so restricting that although he spent the next fifty years writing one book after another on topics such as war, peace, happiness, science and society, and the future of mankind, it forced him to describe most of them as ‘popular’ or ‘non-philosophical’. In fact, he gradually developed an alternative view of philosophy and its value for humanity.

His many popular books are unfairly ignored by historians of ideas and those interested in Russell as a philosopher. Of course, his many-sided activities, popular writings and work for peace are well-known and beloved. But these are usually left for his biography as opposed to his supposed ‘real’ academically-valid, philosophical work. Pick up a book such as The Cambridge Companion to Bertrand Russell or a recent hundredth-anniversary commemoration of The Problems of Philosophy. You would never know from these that Russell held theories of human nature; that he repeatedly (from at least 1916 into the late 1960s) advanced utopian proposals for the future; and that he passionately advocated the value of philosophy and the philosophic life in more traditional terms, that is, as a road to happiness and wisdom. Academic study favors the analytic Russell, especially his work in the first decade of the twentieth century. The academy should be broader than that. He was.

Russell trumpeted his formal contribution to philosophy as revolutionary. The logical-analytical method he helped pioneer is a tool to cut the Gordian Knot of traditional philosophical problems. He developed this ‘scientific method’ in works such as Our Knowledge of the External World (1914). As that title suggests, here the theory of knowledge took center stage. Philosophy had become the science of separating true from false knowledge, beliefs, and statements.

Bertrand Russell
Bertrand Russell
© Athamos Stradis 2017

Philosophy Beyond Analysis

Philosophers today debate the origins of analytic philosophy, partly to ground their own view of the field. Tom Akehurst offers a fresh insight. He argues in his 2010 book The Cultural Politics of Analytic Philosophy that British (and thence American) analytic philosophy purported to ignore politics, but in fact took for granted British liberalism (and imperialism). Analytic philosophy flourished within a cultural consensus because Britain and America did not suffer the ideological unrest that racked the Continent. It was safely non-ideological, concerning itself with formal statements, not with life, not with revolution, not with Hegelian-inspired radicalism. It had no interest in revolution, because Hegel’s logic was wrong.

Russell contributed greatly to the development of analytic philosophy himself, but never limited the scope of his interests. His break with Hegelian philosophy is not unrelated to his British-socialist approach to matters of social progress in his first book, German Social Democracy (1896). He remained equally interested in pursuing both logical analysis and social science, while recognizing that the latter was not yet a science. As an atheist, he perhaps exemplifies Karl Marx’s dictum that the criticism of religion is the beginning of all criticism. For him philosophy pointed to a new and better way of life.

Even before raising the logical-analytic flag, Russell had voiced an equally, or more, important credo concerning ‘the value of philosophy’. The concluding chapter of The Problems of Philosophy, especially its last six paragraphs, still embarrasses Russell’s more strictly academic admirers by its gushy praise of philosophy’s spiritual value. “Apart from its utility… philosophy has a value – perhaps it chief value – through the greatness of the objects which it contemplates, and the freedom from narrow and personal aims resulting from this contemplation,” he writes, adding that through “philosophic contemplation” of the vast impersonal universe, a “philosophic life” is “calm and free.” The sentiment is thoroughly Socratic, and close to Stoicism. Peace of mind comes after an escape from the prison of desire, ego, passion. Sure, Russell adopted much Platonic language even after he rejected Platonic philosophy. We know that in this period he talked of spiritual matters in a futile effort to find common ground with his lover, Ottoline Morrell. But it would be wrong to dismiss this by saying that this is Russell the person speaking rather than Russell the philosopher. Indeed, he held this view of philosophy until the end of his long life. Just two years after announcing his ‘scientific method’, in the midst of war, Russell wrote, “The world has need of a philosophy… which will promote life” (Principles of Social Reconstruction, 1916). This was his life’s work. As he later said: “What the truth on logic is does not matter two pins if there is no one alive to know it” (interview, 1964, in R.W. Clark, The Life of Bertrand Russell, p.504).

Philosophy Beyond Practicality

After analysis comes wisdom. Russell typically ends his ‘popular’ books with a warning that puts in perspective the technical matters he has been analyzing. In, for example, the concluding Chapter 17 of The Scientific Outlook (1931), ‘Science and Values’, he distinguishes between two kinds of knowledge: “We may seek knowledge of an object because we love the object or because we wish to have power over it. The former impulse leads to the kind of knowledge that is contemplative, the latter to the kind that is practical. In the development of science the power impulse has increasingly prevailed over the love impulse.” Science has achieved practical success, but it is merely instrumental, a means to an end. What is a higher end? Contemplative knowledge, inspired by love, allows us to know and come to rest in higher purposes that give “delight or joy or ecstasy.” Philosophers (among others) seek “the ecstasy of contemplation.” “The lover, the poet and the mystic find a fuller satisfaction than the seeker after power can ever know.” The lover includes the lover of truth, that is, the philosopher, although many individual paths are possible.

Such high praise of a life of reason is not incompatible with his view of logical-analytical philosophy, which is meant to achieve impersonal truth; but he certainly goes far beyond it in preaching wisdom: “It is this happy contemplation of what is eternal that Spinoza calls the intellectual love of God. To those who have once known it, it is the key of wisdom.” By ‘eternal’, the famous atheist means something “outside human life, some end which is impersonal and above mankind, such as God or truth or beauty” (Principles of Social Reconstruction, 1916). Russell never deviated from this view, although he would later tone down the metaphysical imagery. In the conclusion of his book on the future of science he regrets that the triumph of practical science apparently entails a loss of the sense of wonder, of love of the universe, of those human values that metaphysics previously provided. So Russell offered a philosophy that, he hoped, would remedy this loss.

At first it seems paradoxical for Bertrand Russell the great secularist to talk this way. However, contrary to a popular assumption, philosophers inclined to metaphysical materialism do not usually espouse materialist values – think of the Epicureans; whereas, conversely, we are used to seeing the spiritually-inclined practicing real-world materialism. Russell mocked unimaginative materialism: he said that most human activity consists of “altering the position of matter at or near the earth’s surface” (‘In Praise of Idleness’, 1932). And “Pragmatism appeals to the temper of mind which finds on the surface of this planet the whole of its imaginative material.” (Pragmatism, 1909).

This was the basis of his objection to Utilitarianism, which he (unfairly) regarded as purely practical. He thought that a philosophy, or a philosophy of science, or an educational theory, which only advocates practical success or utility, arises from the “power impulse” and purveys merely “a governmental view of truth.” Therefore education should train not good citizens of the state, but “citizens of the world.” “Considered sub specie aeternitatis [under the aspect of eternity], the education of the individual is to my mind a finer thing than the education of the citizen…” Such individuals bring a cosmic perspective to the improvement of society. (Think of the philosopher escaping Plato’s Cave and then returning to teach its denizens a higher wisdom.) Both the individual and society reap the rewards of contemplation, of being ‘citizens of the universe’ on a grand scale. Of course, we perpetually need to remind the universities of this principle of a liberal education.

Russell the secularist does not stop at quietism. This is a philosophy of action: “action is best when it emerges from a profound appreciation of the universe and human destiny” he wrote (Useless Knowledge, 1932). Or, “The good life is not contemplation only, or action only, but action based on contemplation, action attempting to incarnate the infinite in the world” (The Perplexities of John Forstice, 1912 in Collected Papers, v.12). The wise person has, so to speak, one eye on the city, and one eye looking beyond it.

Philosophy Beyond Space & Time

Later Russell toned down his rather Platonic language of the contemplation of eternal universal truth. However, he continued to make ambitious claims about the effectiveness of philosophy, and therefore, about what philosophy is. In the triumphalist final chapter of his History of Western Philosophy (1946), he even avers that the benefits of the impersonal ‘scientific’ philosophical method extend “to the whole sphere of human activity, producing… a lessening of fanaticism with an increasing capacity of sympathy and mutual understanding.” He concludes, “philosophy does not cease to suggest and inspire a way of life” thus readmitting a traditional aim of philosophy as the consequence of his method. (Indeed, writing a history of philosophy in relation to society is not itself a logical-analytic activity.)

‘The Duty of a Philosopher in this Age’ (1964) is one of Russell’s last writings on the topic. In this essay he describes, indeed he defines, the philosopher as a public intellectual. This model individual charts the same course Russell himself had taken. First: “I shall suppose that, until his education was finished, he was too much absorbed in the technicalities of modern philosophy to concern himself with the political problems of his own time.” Later, more is demanded of ‘him’ and of philosophy: “There is, perhaps, one duty which falls specially within the province of philosophy, and that is to persuade mankind that human life is worth preserving…” Then: “How, in our modern world, should a philosopher live? Some of the lessons of philosophy are ancient and timeless. He should endeavour to view the world, as far as he is able, without a bias of space and time, without more emphasis upon the here and now than upon other places and other times. When he considers the world in which he has to live, he must approach it as if he were a stranger imported from another planet. Such impartiality is a part of the duty of the philosopher at all times.” Such a philosophical state of mind gives the philosopher the credentials both to be logical and to take a beneficent position on world problems.

Philosophy Beyond The Academy

True, Russell often adopts a prophetic and utopian tone. A late work of his of the nuclear age, Has Man a Future? (1961), for example, ends with provisional predictions of “the transition period… to the new world that would be in process of being created.” Yet behind such seeming fantasies, including elaborate schemes for world government, lie Russell’s unwavering advocacy of reason, his theory of human nature, and his related theories of education and the proper pursuit of science.

Russell put what was most important to him into his ‘popular’ books. Fortunately, he himself burst the bonds of his self-imposed mathematical-logical straitjacket. Human life had a way of intruding, not only into his eventful biography, but into his philosophy. Looking back in old age, he said that in 1901 the suffering of a friend had filled him “with a desire almost as profound as that of the Buddha to find some philosophy which should make human life endurable” (Autobiography, 1967). He knew this vitally important ‘philosophy of life’ could not be entirely scientific, although he always aspired to found it on reason. Over many decades he fleshed out his view of the good life and of the future of humanity and of the world. In doing so he continued to use ‘philosophy’ in a broad sense and to insist that a universal, impartial perspective results in wiser, happier individuals and is the only path to a more perfect world.

© Dr John R. Lenz 2017

John R. Lenz is a former President of the Bertrand Russell Society and teaches Classics at Drew University.

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