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Betrand Russell The Problems Of Philosophy Essay

Betrand Russell: The Problems Of Philosophy Essay, Research Paper

Betrand Russell: The Problems of Philosophy

The value of Philosophy is, in fact, to be sought largely in its 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 the convictions which have grown up in his mind without the

co-operation of his deliberate reason. Bertrand Russell, The Problems of


Philosophy is commonly thought of as an activity reserved for Oxbridge high-

brows; or a sort of intellectual table-tennis indulged in by the Ancient Greeks

to while the time away before television came along. Russell suggests that it

may actually serve a purpose for everyone.

In the first line, Russell is clearly contrasting his own belief in the inherent

uncertainty of philosophy with the attitude of those people who dedicate their

lives to a search for the “right” theory, in an attempt to understand the

“truth” about human nature. He argues that, were a philosopher to write the

perfect, unanswerable theory, the solution to life, the universe and everything,

then philosophy would itself become responsible for inducing the very mental

laziness which it should help us to avoid.

Disagreement and debate between the adherents of rival theories is, moreover,

essential to the health of philosophy. Just as many major advances of science

are catalysed by war, so the great intellectual insights are sparked by

discussion. If there were universal agreement on one philosophical theory, then

all further thought would be rendered useless. (See p.319, Small World by David

Lodge: “?what matters in the field of critical practice is not truth but

difference. If everybody were convinced by your arguments, they would have to do

the same as you and then there would be no satisfaction in doing it.”)

Russell talks of three different factors involved in the formation of prejudice.

Each is considered in detail below.

The first type of prejudice is derived from common sense. This is interesting:

it appears that Russell is suggesting that common sense is to be avoided. The

Concise Oxford Dictionary defines common sense as “sound, practical sense,

especially in everyday matters”. In theory, any sound sense is to be welcomed,

where appropriate; the distinction to be made here is between applying common

sense to mundane problems, which Russell would certainly not advise against, and

taking it out of context as a set of rules which can be followed without any

further thought, no matter what the circumstances. For example, if you are

feeling hungry, and you are holding a biscuit, then a philosophical debate is

not required to reach the conclusion that you eat the biscuit: it’s common sense.

Fair enough; but if there is then a debate on the problem of starvation in

Africa, and you were to say: “We should obviously collect food to send to the

starving people; it’s common sense.” then you would be taking the simple biscuit

decision out of context and into an area where many factors must be considered,

such as whether short term food aid would prevent the people of Africa from

reaching a long term solution to their problems. So Russell is not arguing

against common sense per se; what he is warning against is the replacement of

careful reasoning with a system of ready responses that masquerades as common

sense, to provide an excuse for not thinking.

The sources of the second type of prejudice responsible for our imprisonment are

“the convictions which have grown up in one’s mind without the co-operation of

one’s deliberate reason”. These convictions occur partly as a consequence of the

social conditioning (or “brainwashing”) which, whether consciously devised or

not, seems to be the inevitable result of education in a large-scale society

such as our own. A consequence of this conditioning is the tendency to na?vety

and an unquestioning acceptance of anything taught as fact, which is present, in

varying degrees, in all school leavers in our society.

The success with which this na?vety is subsequently shaken off, and the

resistance that an individual shows to further brainwashing from such sources as

the Sun newspaper, both depend, according to Russell, on the degree of exposure

to philosophy. I believe that this stands up to scrutiny: for example, graduates

of university are extremely unlikely to read the Sun; the exposure to a climate

of extreme intellectual freedom (students are often the main proponents of

change to the status quo) makes the graduates resistant to the blatantly

manipulative articles. I do not wish to enter into the debate on whether

intellectual freedom is ever attainable, or whether it is always an illusion;

the fact remains that the ability to question apparent truths will be aided by

the study of, or exposure to, philosophy. (For it is clearly not only those who

have sat in a class entitled “philosophy” that have had a “tincture” of it.)

Mention of the gullible Sun reader raises the question of what is wrong with an

unthinking but contented life. I would argue that nothing is wrong with such a

life, provided it is truly contented. I think Russell believed that nobody could

be content with an unthinking life. This theme is explored in many literary

works and novels, e.g. Huxley’s Brave New World, and Willy Russell’s Educating


Thirdly, there are prejudices derived from “the habitual beliefs of our age or

our nation”. These include the prejudices people are familiar with, such as

racism or sexism, and an equally important, but less obvious group of

prejudices: those caused by peer pressure – e.g. if you move to Saudi Arabia as

a child, there will be strong pressure on you to become a follower of Islam.

It is clear to me that Russell was something of a cynic, at least where popular

sentiment was concerned. He is advocating that you be very careful of the

supposedly obvious, or of anything that is accepted as fact simply because it is

repeated regularly – truisms and mantras should be subjected to your own

personal scrutiny before you accept them.

The “imprisonment” referred to in the second line is the loss of mental freedom,

a result of both holding the prejudices discussed in detail above, and of the

lack of a philosophical perspective which would allow you to recognise and

question these prejudices. This is, in fact, a description of the “unthinking

human” discussed above. He is akin to a drone bee or a worker ant, obeying

orders blindly and working mindlessly.

What sets Homo sapiens apart from other species is the ability to question the

world in which it lives. Philosophy has a vital r?le to play in the lives of all

men, enabling them to realise this ability: it serves as an antidote to the

“prejudices, habitual beliefs and convictions” which threaten their mental