Bertrand Russell’s ‘shilling shocker’ and it’s century old legacy
Bertrand Russell was the most famous British philosopher of the 20th century. His work spanned from detailed analysis of mathematics and logic to influential essays on pacifism and religion. His huge philosophical and literary output awarded him the 1950 Nobel prize for Literature. His philosophical legacy is still widely felt in university philosophy departments today, especially in the english-speaking world.
In 1912, whilst a philosophy lecturer at Cambridge University, he published a very short but succinct book called ‘The Problems of Philosophy’. It concentrates mainly on epistemology; a branch of philosophy concerned with the nature of knowledge. Russell puts forward his own philosophy and his conception of the nature of philosophy itself.
Partly, the genius of the book is how wonderfully conversational it is, without sacrificing any philosophical reasoning. Russell writes as if he is in conversation with the reader. The reader needs no technical philosophical knowledge, because Russell vividly shows with narratives and examples exactly what the philosophical problems are. Hence, the name ‘The Problems of Philosophy’.
All the same, the book is an introduction to academic philosophy. It is a brief overview of complex accounts of knowledge theorised by different philosophers (including Russell himself). He is never afraid to demonstrate challenging arguments, nevertheless Russell writes with a clarity and precision few people have ever mastered. He illuminates philosophical discussions for all of his readers.
The book starts with the divide between ‘appearance’ and ‘reality’. This is a theme which begun philosophical thinking across every age. The idea that there is a fundamental reality beyond what we experience through our senses. The intuition that there is more to the world than what meets the eye.
Russell lucidly describes this distinction through the everyday experience of sitting at a desk. He observes how our normal perception of reality, such as, the colour or shape of table is never certain knowledge. We may believe the table is brown, yet when we examine it carefully, it appears many different shades of colours depending on the angle we are or how the light hits it.
Our sense-datum is constantly changing. Nonetheless, we still believe there is a ‘real’ table underneath our changing perceptions of it. Philosophers are concerned with whether we can know the fundamental nature of the table and how it relates to the world as whole. For instance, what we can know about the nature of matter or the nature of ideas.
Yet, you may ask, isn’t this science? The job of science is to understand the universe, right? Scientists develop empirical theories which are testable through observations and experiments. Whereas, the philosopher examines the assumptions behind the scientists theory. A major assumption is that our ideas somehow correspond with reality. The philosopher’s job is to show exactly how this is the case.
This leads Russell to dedicate a chapter on ‘Idealism’, where he discusses what it means to apprehend an idea. A great approach of Russell’s book is how he examines past philosophers, such as George Berkeley or Immanuel Kant, clearly expressing their theories and how they are still relevant to philosophy today.
Russell writes chapters on other philosophical assumptions behind our normal everyday experience. He talks about the philosopher David Hume and the problem of ‘induction’. If we are to have any type of knowledge at all, we must be able to infer from event A that event B will occur.
For example, why do we know the sun will rise tomorrow? Is it only due to the fact the sun has always risen in the past that we believe it will rise tomorrow? My Grandma may always have eaten cheerios for breakfast, but I wouldn’t say I know she will eat cheerios tomorrow. Thus, what is the difference between the two cases? Russell says
“It is to be observed that all such expectations are only probable; thus we have not to seek for a proof that they must be fulfilled, but only for some reason in favour of the view that they are likely to be fulfilled.”
However, it should be noted how our belief in science is not a matter of probability. When NASA sends a rocket to space the scientists believe there is something necessary about the laws of physics. Scientific laws cannot be broken — gravity will not suddenly stop working. Russell articulates this position as
“The belief in the uniformity of nature is the belief that everything that has happened or will happen is an instance of some general law to which there are no exceptions.”
The problem of induction is one of the most debated and important discussions in philosophy. Some of the greatest philosophy ever written has been in response to this problem, and it continues to puzzle philosophers to this very day. Every university philosophy course in the world will cover this debate.
This may lead us to the conclusion that philosophy does not make progress. A book which is 108 years old is still one of the best introductions to the subject. In the same amount of time, the sciences have made unimaginable progress towards a scientific understanding of the universe. Why hasn’t philosophy made the same progress? Why do the philosophical problems run for hundreds and hundreds of years?
Well, as Russell himself says, the lack of progress in philosophy is more apparent than real. Throughout history, subjects which were once considered philosophy, such as astronomy and psychology; become their own subjects as soon as definite knowledge could be discovered. In this way, philosophy has been a victim of its own success.
Yet, the uncertainty of philosophical knowledge is part of the fundamental nature of philosophy itself. Questions regarding God’s existence or the nature of Truth and Knowledge or Beauty are extremely difficult to answer. But, as Russell notes
“There are many questions — and among them those that are of the profoundest interest to our spiritual life…it is part of the business of philosophy to continue the consideration of such questions, to make us aware of their importance, to examine all approaches to them, and to keep alive that speculative interest in the universe…”
This why ‘The Problems of Philosophy’ by Bertrand Russell has a legacy which remains to this day. Russell kept alive the desire of human kind to understand ourselves and the universe. He lucidly maps out important responses to some of the most challenging questions we can ever ask ourselves. He does not want the reader to simply read, rather he challenges the reader to philosophise. He wants us to think philosophically about the world. Russell’s introduction is written to create philosophers of all its readers. And this is why its legacy remains.