Betrand Russell: The Problems of Philosophy


The value of Philosophy is, in fact, to be sought largely in its uncertainty.
The man who has no tincture of Philosophy goes through life imprisoned in the
prejudices derived from common sense, from the habitual beliefs of his age or
his nation, and from the convictions which have grown up in his mind without the
co-operation of his deliberate reason. Bertrand Russell, The Problems of
Philosophy.

Philosophy is commonly thought of as an activity reserved for Oxbridge high-
brows; or a sort of intellectual table-tennis indulged in by the Ancient Greeks
to while the time away before television came along. Russell suggests that it
may actually serve a purpose for everyone.

In the first line, Russell is clearly contrasting his own belief in the inherent
uncertainty of philosophy with the attitude of those people who dedicate their
lives to a search for the "right" theory, in an attempt to understand the
"truth" about human nature. He argues that, were a philosopher to write the
perfect, unanswerable theory, the solution to life, the universe and everything,
then philosophy would itself become responsible for inducing the very mental
laziness which it should help us to avoid.

Disagreement and debate between the adherents of rival theories is, moreover,
essential to the health of philosophy. Just as many major advances of science
are catalysed by war, so the great intellectual insights are sparked by
discussion. If there were universal agreement on one philosophical theory, then
all further thought would be rendered useless. (See p.319, Small World by David
Lodge: "…what matters in the field of critical practice is not truth but
difference. If everybody were convinced by your arguments, they would have to do
the same as you and then there would be no satisfaction in doing it.")

Russell talks of three different factors involved in the formation of prejudice.
Each is considered in detail below.

The first type of prejudice is derived from common sense. This is interesting:
it appears that Russell is suggesting that common sense is to be avoided. The
Concise Oxford Dictionary defines common sense as "sound, practical sense,
especially in everyday matters". In theory, any sound sense is to be welcomed,
where appropriate; the distinction to be made here is between applying common
sense to mundane problems, which Russell would certainly not advise against, and
taking it out of context as a set of rules which can be followed without any
further thought, no matter what the circumstances. For example, if you are
feeling hungry, and you are holding a biscuit, then a philosophical debate is
not required to reach the conclusion that you eat the biscuit: it's common sense.
Fair enough; but if there is then a debate on the problem of starvation in
Africa, and you were to say: "We should obviously collect food to send to the
starving people; it's common sense." then you would be taking the simple biscuit
decision out of context and into an area where many factors must be considered,
such as whether short term food aid would prevent the people of Africa from
reaching a long term solution to their problems. So Russell is not arguing
against common sense per se; what he is warning against is the replacement of
careful reasoning with a system of ready responses that masquerades as common
sense, to provide an excuse for not thinking.

The sources of the second type of prejudice responsible for our imprisonment are
"the convictions which have grown up in one's mind without the co-operation of
one's deliberate reason". These convictions occur partly as a consequence of the
social conditioning (or "brainwashing") which, whether consciously devised or
not, seems to be the inevitable result of education in a large-scale society
such as our own. A consequence of this conditioning is the tendency to naïvety
and an unquestioning acceptance of anything taught as fact, which is present, in
varying degrees, in all school leavers in our society.

The success with which this naïvety is subsequently shaken off, and the
resistance that an individual shows to further brainwashing from such sources as
the Sun newspaper, both depend, according to Russell, on the degree of exposure
to philosophy. I believe that this stands up to scrutiny: for example, graduates
of university are extremely unlikely to read the Sun; the exposure to a climate
of extreme intellectual freedom (students are often the main proponents of
change to the status quo) makes the graduates resistant to the blatantly
manipulative articles. I do not wish to enter into the debate on whether
intellectual freedom is ever attainable, or whether it is always an