Bertrand Russell the Passionate Skeptic: A Biography

By Alan Wood | Go to book overview

CHAPTER XXIV
The Unfinished Philosophy

WITTGENSTEIN, in one of his sudden moments of penetration and insight, once remarked that the trouble with Russell in his later years was 'loss of problems'. It was a striking phrase: and, if my view of philosophy is right, it was the most fundamental criticism that can be made of any philosopher. Wittgenstein meant that, in a sense, Russell had begun to find philosophy too easy and straightforward: his mind had become too precise: he was no longer vaguely perplexed by unexpected doubts and strange questions coming into his mind.

To some extent, I think, the criticism is true. Thirty years of strain and stress in a world which grew madder every day, thirty years of political activity and personal worries and recurrent financial anxiety, had taken some of the freshness out of Russell's mind; particularly after the way he had drawn on every reserve of strength in writing Principia Mathematica. During these thirty years, with little chance of mental relaxation and recuperation, he had few of those illuminating flashes of doubt in which he had questioned the axioms of Euclid, or questioned whether every word or phrase in a sentence must stand for something. He contented himself, for the most part, with working away at problems which had occurred to him already; for which he had the reasonable justification that he had not yet solved these problems, and that no one else had solved them either.

The fullest statement of his conclusions was given in his Human Knowledge: Its Scope and Limits, published in 1948, when he was 76. I believe it is one of the most important of Russell's books, and a landmark in the history of philosophy; but I confess that I know hardly anyone who agrees with me. The fact that the book was underestimated was mainly, I think,

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