“The Problems of Philosophy” by Bertrand Russell

This book is pitched just at the right level for me. I am interested in philosophy, but don’t have enough knowledge of it to be able to understand some of the more complex works. I tried Wittgenstein recently, for instance, and it didn’t take. But this short introduction to some of the basic problems of philosophy was very enjoyable. It’s almost 100 years old now, so probably the problems of philosophy are a little different today, but still I found the ideas in this book very thought-provoking.

Russell’s writing is as clear as a window pane, and he uses copious everyday examples to illustrate every point. He starts off, for example, by considering his desk. He is asking whether we can really know anything with any certainty, and shows that even the desk in front of him is not as apparently solid and unchanging as it at first appears. Its shape changes depending on viewpoint, its colour shifts with the light, its texture is smooth when viewed from a distance but rugged when viewed through a microscope, and so on.

He uses this to lead into Descartes system of systematic doubt, i.e. not believing anything unless he was quite certain it was true. Doing this, it becomes clear, makes us reevaluate many of the things that common sense tells us are true and real. How do we know, for example, that the sun will rise tomorrow? We may say that it has risen every morning in the past, or we may give an answer based on the laws of motion. But in either case, we have to ask ourselves whether we truly know that something will happen simply because it has happened that way countless times in the past. Russell give the wonderful example of a chicken receiving food from a man every day of its life, until at last the man wrings its neck. The chicken may have been reasonable to expect food based on past occurrences, but “more refined views as to the uniformity of nature would have been useful to the chicken.”

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Russell uses similar vivid examples and clear language to explain various philosophical concepts and ways of thinking, such as induction (which starts from the particular to arrive at other particulars or general principles) and deduction (which goes from general principles to other general principles or to the particular). He gives quick portraits of the views of philosophers such as Kant and Hegel, before finishing with a wonderful summary of the value of studying philosophy, in which he admits that philosophy still has large unanswered questions, but states that as a virtue rather than a flaw:

The value of philosophy is, in fact, to be sought largely in its very uncertainty. The man who has no tincture of philosophy goes through life imprisoned in the prejudices derived from common sense … 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.

I like this idea of valuing the questions rather than the answers, of embracing uncertainty as superior to false certainty. The final paragraph is beautiful:

Philosophy is to be studied … 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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There are 8 comments

  1. Wonderful review, Andrew! This looks like a wonderful book! I haven’t read any book by Bertrand Russell, but have read smaller pieces by him. This looks like a wonderful place to start. I loved your sentence – “Russell’s writing is as clear as a window pane” 🙂 Thanks for writing about Russell’s book.

  2. Hi Vishy, I have to admit that I borrowed that phrase from George Orwell 🙂 He said in one of his essays that good writing is like a window pane, and it really stuck with me. Too often reading can feel like peering through murky glass, and it’s wonderful when it’s as clear as Bertrand Russell was here.

  3. I’m very surprised that Russell writes in such a cristal clear way I always thought he was one of the obscure ones. Plus the fact that he includes everyday examples makes it sound as if he wanted to be understood.
    I like that last quote and what you write about philosophy being more about questions than answers and uncertainty instead of false certainty. This strikes me as the exact opposite of fanatism.

  4. Hi Caroline! He was certainly very clear in this book, but perhaps that’s because it was intended for the “layperson”. In his more detailed work aimed at fellow philosophers, it’s quite possible that the window pane becomes muddy again 🙂 I loved that last quote as well. There is so much false certainty in the world, and it was refreshing to hear Russell advocating the study of philosophy not because it would provide answers, but because of the benefit of contemplating the questions.

  5. How interesting – like Caroline, I had the feeling Russell was heavy-going. But if I look at his dates, he’s prior to the wave of continental theory that put philosophy out of the reach of most ordinary readers, and well within the boundaries of the era when anyone could have an interest in big questions. Hmmm, I will have to try him one of these days. Thank you for the review!

  6. Sounds like an intriguing book. I too have wanted to delve into philosophy but where to start and what to choose from the multitude of books available out there…
    Reading about the reference to the desk made me think of perception and how that can change the way we see things.

  7. Sounds like the sort of philosophy book that I would enjoy. I like you comment about using philosophy to contemplate questions. Life is probably more about the questions that the answers. Thanks.

  8. Thanks for the comments – glad I made it sound interesting! Would definitely recommend it as an accessible introduction to some quite heavy ideas. litlove, it’s a good point about the time – there was an era when ordinary people could understand these things, and it’s a shame that so much these days is so specialised (or downright weird, e.g. quantum physics). Delia, he goes into a lot of detail about that desk – you’ll never see a desk in the same way again! Kinna, I agree – well, answers would be great, but I prefer questions to false answers any day.

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