Why I Am Not a Russellian

By Novak, John M. | Free Inquiry, Fall 1995 | Go to article overview

Why I Am Not a Russellian


Novak, John M., Free Inquiry


Bertrand Russell is certainly an important humanist. As a philosopher, social activist, and educator he has been an inspiring figure, willing to take strong stands and pay the consequences for being a freethinker in a world in which expressive freedom and penetrating thought were usually only linked rhetorically. I still turn to his essays for insights, humor, incisive comments, food for thought - and am seldom disappointed. However, in spite of my admiration for Russellian intellect, prose, and life stance, I find that his humanism does not run deep enough and his approach to education and society more idiosyncratic than substantive. Allow me to briefly elaborate.

As I see it, a humanist is someone who realizes we cannot escape the human perspective and so tries to savor, understand, and better this human outlook. This humanist perspective can be stated this way: Since we cannot isolate ourselves from human experiences, how can we get more out of them? Russell certainly was able to savor human experiences and was committed to clearly denouncing that which he felt got in the way of human betterment. However, in my estimation, he succumbs to a subtle transcendental temptation in his understanding of the human perspective. Quite simply, at some basic level, Russell thinks that humans have immaculate receptions of knowledge immediate knowledge of atomistic aspects of reality.(1) These atomistic perceptions are thus the foundation for certain knowledge. This enables Russell and others who hold this view to have a type of incisive certainty and cut to the bone on some basic knowledge issues.

As appealing as this claim for foundational certainty is, there is another point of view. That is, that life is messier and that human perception does not have this privileged access to knowledge; knowledge claims regarding the empirical world are always inferential. In actuality, all knowledge is mediated, that is, constructed from some perspective within problematic situations. Thus, experience is always occurring in some context and must be filtered through some perspective to become knowledge.

This constructed view of knowledge doesn't mean that there isn't a reality "out there," only that we do not have direct knowledge of the "out there." The defensible contracts we make with the "out there" and call knowledge are always mediated, partial, and from a certain perspective. …

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