Russell and the Contemplation of Philosophy

By Shosky, John | Free Inquiry, Fall 1995 | Go to article overview

Russell and the Contemplation of Philosophy


Shosky, John, Free Inquiry


Perhaps the most insightful comment about philosophy was made by Aristotle, who said that philosophy begins with wonder - an intellectual curiosity about the nature of the world and mankind's place. Skeptics argue that we can never satisfy the questions generated by our curiosity, and that it is pointless to try. Some view philosophy as a paradoxical activity, raising questions that defy answers, expanding the horizons of thought only to watch them instantly retract.

While he understood the power of the skeptic's argument, and believed that one should not accept a statement without sufficient justification,(1) Russell also believed that the study of philosophy was extremely valuable, even if the remaining philosophical questions were unanswerable. This value comes in leaving behind the daily troubles of our individual lives and looking beyond ourselves into the vastness of time and the universe.(2) While Russell rejected theological explanations for life's purpose and the soul's immortality, he courageously asked each of us to dare to think, to dream, to wonder, to care about each other, to search for the truth, and to engage in the quest for knowledge.

Russell is my philosophical hero precisely because he valiantly believed that philosophy was our best weapon against humbug, dogma, totalitarianism, fanaticism, ignorance, and fear. He encouraged thinkers to hear "whispers from another world"(3) - whispers only heard through rigorous philosophical activity. He asked his readers to approach the world with a philosophical methodology that enabled us to expose error and incomplete reasoning, yet helped to progressively add to the storehouse of learning that was civilization's legacy to the future.

For Russell, philosophy should never claim to be a catalogue of true propositions. Philosophers don't "have the truth." Philosophers who dogmatically argue for their metaphysical systems of thought "trivialize" philosophy through a kind of intellectual "treachery."(4) Rather, the best way for philosophers to search for knowledge is through open-ended, testable, and revisable proportions based on sense data or through inference based on the reported experiences of others (Russell's famous reliance on "knowledge by acquaintance" and "knowledge by description"). This is not to say that we cannot be misled by experience; but like Descartes, Russell believed that it is possible to isolate starting points that allow for a more secure foundation for our beliefs.

Of course, Russell used logic as a formidable weapon against poor thinking. Logic offered "an inventory of the possible, a repertory of abstractly tenable hypotheses." For instance, the study of logical form allowed for philosophy to "deal with its problems piecemeal, and obtain, as the sciences do, such partial and probably not wholly correct results as subsequent investigation can utilize even while it supplements and improves them." Philosophical problems could be placed under a logical microscope and dissected until the source of confusion is isolated and eliminated. Practiced in this way, philosophy becomes, according to Russell, "the science of the possible," allowing for an incremental approach to knowledge. Just like the sciences, philosophy will offer hypotheses that may be false, but in falsifying a proposition philosophy will inch slightly closer to the truth. The use of a scientific approach in philosophy will "ensure a progress in method whose importance it would be impossible to exaggerate."(5)

As a result of his use of scientific method and logical form in philosophy, Russell (along with G. E. Moore) became the founder of the philosophical analysis that has characterized Anglo-Austrian-American philosophy in this century. Russell also offered an atomistic basis for knowledge - the use of logical atoms that are the building blocks for our knowledge of the external world. This "philosophy of logical atomism" explains how experience and logic form our understanding of nature and language - a view that Russell consistently held at least from 1903 through 1918. …

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