Key Concepts of the Philosophy of Bertrand Russell

Bertrand Russell was a 20th Century English philosopher and mathematician, who is often considered the most important figure in the development of the 20th century school of thought called “analytic philosophy.” Russell was a vehement critic of idealism, especially Hegel, and of Nietzsche’s pluralistic views of philosophy instead emphasizing a philosophy that was concerned with the epistemological concerns of science and linguistic communication. As well as being a prominent academic, Russell was also a well known public figure, due to his dry witted writing of philosophical themes for mass consumption and his outspoken and controversial criticism of religion. Many have argued that Russell was the single most influential philosopher of the 20th Century, having been a teacher of Ludwig Wittgenstein, and having laid down the template for the dominant principles of analytic philosophy.

Analytic Philosophy


Russell thought that the majority of the philosophy up until the 20th Century had been based around making assumptions in order to try to create a continuous and dogmatic system that could explain everything. This was a huge mistake to Russell, because it meant that if the system itself was flawed, which it would almost inevitably be, then it would render almost all observations made within that system to be false. Russell decided that there should not be multiple philosophical systems but instead that philosophy should concern itself with the use of formal logic and the sciences in order to solve problems.

Analytic philosophy was concerned with the solving of the simplest problems, from the ground up, instead of attempting to build vast systems like Hegel or Kant had, and Russell put an emphasis on very precise communication. Language was a very important part of philosophy, according to Russell, because we needed to be very sure that we are communicating ideas effectively and that all parties understand and mean the same thing when using the same terms. Russell’s “theory of description” refers to co-referring and non-specific descriptions. An example of a co-referring description would be “the evening star” and “the morning star”, which are two terms for the exact same thing. A non-specific term would be something like “an aardvark”, which makes a reference to something but not a specific something.

Like science, Russell thought that philosophy should be done using strict method and formal logic. He was a big believer in the principle put forth by medieval philosopher William of Ockham, “Occam’s Razor”, which stated that the conclusion in which the smallest number of assumptions needed to be made was most likely the correct one. He also thought that philosophy, like science, could only come to tentative conclusions. He was heavily influenced by the radical skepticism of David Hume, who he considered his philosophical hero, and many of his views on philosophy were compatible with a Humian viewpoint on philosophy.

Because his viewpoint toward philosophy were so grounded in science, Russell rejected the idea that Ethics could be seen as being within the purview of the philosopher at all. Russell agreed with Hume that Ethics could be objectively argued for, though he considered them to be based on intuition and could not be derived from the natural world or use of deductive logic. Russell did write many papers on the subject of ethics but he considered his role to be more of a social critic then as a philosopher. It is also noteworthy that the only philosophical subject that Russell avoided was Aesthetics, a branch of philosophy that Hume viewed in a similar way to his theory of ethics.

Religion

Religion had not been discussed on its objective truths seriously since at least Kant and by the 20th Century, theology had become an almost completely separate study to the concerns of philosophy. Russell, was an outspoken critic of religion and he also thought that it had no place in philosophy, especially in his strictly scientific view of what philosophy should be. As an analogy for this viewpoint, Russell presented what is now known as “Russell’s Teapot.”

Russell stated that if he claimed that an unseen teapot had been orbiting in space, and he expected others to believe this based on ancient texts that asserted it, with no physical evidence, he would be considered crazy. The point of the analogy is to assert that when one makes a claim for which there is no evidence, then the burden of proof is then placed on the person making the claim and not on the person who dismisses the claim. This viewpoint is consistent with Russell’s scientific view toward philosophy.

However, many philosophers have pointed out that Russell’s analogy may be a flawed one. One criticism is that there is a rational basis for the belief in a deity but that a teapot has no such basis. A more substantial objection may be that in the case of the teapot, we are disagreeing about a very small detail of the world. In the case of the atheist and the theist, there are a number of vast differences and religion does not make a single claim about the nature of reality, but a vast and complex, interconnected series of claims.

Regardless of the limitations of the analogy, it has been influential on modern atheist thought and has been the inspiration for other similar concepts, like “the flying spaghetti monster” which may serve as better analogies to claims made by religious thinkers.

Logic and Mathematics

Russell did a great deal of work with mathematics and logic, much of which would help in the grounding of his views on analytical philosophy and would influence future philosophers, most notably Willard Quine. With Alfred Whitehead as a collaborator, Russell wrote Principia Mathematica, a three volume work on the foundation of mathematics. The purpose of this work was to derive the foundations of all mathematical truths from the axioms and principles of formal symbolic logic. Russell and Whitehead based their views on mathematics on a “system of types” and Russell had previously presented a number of paradoxes that point out flaws in previous views on mathematics.

Russell’s paradox, a problem with “set theory” is stated: “If R qualifies as a member of itself, it would contradict its own definition as a set containing all sets that are not members of themselves. On the other hand, if such a set is not a member of itself, it would qualify as a member of itself by the same definition. This contradiction is Russell's paradox.” Trying to explain this paradox in layman’s terms can be difficult but is done very well in this video:

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The Blagsmith profile image

The Blagsmith 5 years ago from Britain

Hmm, in 1980 as a seventeen year old I went to a place called Braziers School of Integrative Social Research. Its founders ideals were based on Bertrand Russell.

I am not too sure how Russell's ideas influenced a living communal study though I learnt much about having to consider others likes and dislikes to be part of a successful community. However, I have included the website address of this place:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Braziers_Park

And there are many articles that were produced from the founding community including Norman Glaister that can be found using its official Braziers School of Integrative Social Research title in the Google search engine.

The place itself is located in the rural heart of South Oxfordshire and besides having a community it also acts as a residential college on the weekend and sometimes runs longer breaks.


pressingtheissue profile image

pressingtheissue 5 years ago from Pa

Quotes from Russel:

"EDUCATION has two purposes: on the one hand to form the mind, on the other hand to train the citizen. The Athenians concentrated on the former, the Spartans on the latter. The Spartans won, but the Athenians were remembered."

"...the scientific rulers will provide one kind of education for ordinary men and women, and another for those who are to become holders of scientific power. Ordinary men and women will be expected to be docile, industrious, punctual, thoughtless, and contented. Of these qualities probably contentment will be considered the most important. In order to produce it, all the researches of psycho-analysis, behaviourism, and biochemistry will be brought into play. "

"All the boys and girls will learn from an early age to be what is called “co-operative,” i.e. to do exactly what everybody is doing. Initiative will be discouraged in these children, and insubordination, without being punished, will be scientifically trained out of them."

"Eugenics, chemical and thermal treatment of the embryo, and diet in early years will be used with a view to the production of the highest possible ultimate ability. "

This guy was a eugenics friek and a proponent of a scientific dictatorship.

Sickening!


The Blagsmith profile image

The Blagsmith 5 years ago from Britain

The communal study that I lived in at Braziers was founded on Bertrand Russell's ideas. However, we were not encouraged to be docile. Nobody held any titles but given jobs that they had volunteered for or were capable of. There was educated and those with little education and we were encouraged in meetings to speak in turn.

Visitors including paying guests were encouraged to help the community whose main support was made up of willing volunteers.

How this fits in with what I experienced to what you wrote Pressingtheissue I am not sure but it certainly does not seem to fit what I practically observed and was a part of.

Maybe Braziers took only some of his ideas and then tried to create an experience that will be beneficial for us all.


Robephiles profile image

Robephiles 5 years ago Author

The above quotes from "pressingtheissue" are taken out of context from essays by Russell and his book The Scientific Outlook. In much of his writing, Russell deals with the history of education and oppressive societies. The above quotes are meant to link him with Fascism, Communism and Nazism. Russell was a hash critic of Soviet Communism, and in most of his work, of Karl Marx in general, having seen him as overly dogmatic like Hegel. The fact that he was also appalled by fascism and Nazism seems so obvious it shouldn't even be worth mentioning. Conspiracy theorists like Alex Jones routinely quote mine Russell to make it seem as if he is a proponent of views that he is actually against. When these quotes are usually presented, it is doubtful that the person presenting them has read the texts in which they have been lifted. Russell does receive harsh criticism for his over-reliance of science as a basis of philosophy, in the Continental school of thought.


pressingtheissue profile image

pressingtheissue 5 years ago from Pa

Actually, I have read those texts and many others. No where did I see that he was against fascism. Maybe you could suggest one that I missed. In-fact he always seems to have a bit of a fascination with it.


Robephiles profile image

Robephiles 5 years ago Author

In today's context Plato would be considered a fascist and Russell denounces his form of government many times. The term fascism was not in common use until mid-twentieth century but if you read anything Russell wrote past World War 2, he addresses the concept directly.


pressingtheissue profile image

pressingtheissue 5 years ago from Pa

OK, I will look into it. I still don't understand why you defend, or rather, brush off the comments above. I went back and tried to gather further context and found that there seems to be two sides of his philosophy.

For instance: In "The Impact of Science on Society" (Russel New York: Simon & Schuster, 1951 and 1953) He states, "I do not pretend that birth control is the only way in which population can be kept from increasing. There are others, which, one must suppose, opponents of birth control would prefer. War, as I remarked a moment ago, has hitherto been disappointing in this respect, but perhaps bacteriological war may prove more effective. If a Black Death could be spread throughout the world once in every generation survivors could procreate freely without making the world too full. There would be nothing in this to offend the consciences of the devout or to restrain the ambitions of nationalists. The state of affairs might be somewhat unpleasant, but what of that? Really high-minded people are indifferent to happiness, especially other people’s." (p.26)

and

"There are three ways of securing a society that shall be stable as regards population. The first is that of birth control, the second that of infanticide or really destructive wars, and the third that of general misery except for a powerful minority." (103-104)

These writings are quite telling to me. At first I considered that he was trying to describe a possible outcome of civilization, but it quickly became clear to me that this is what he is proposing, or endorsing, if you will.

Of course I found other more uplifting and light hearted statements in his autobiography such as: "Love and knowledge, so far as they were possible, led upward toward the heavens. But always pity brought me back to earth. Echoes of cries of pain reverberate in my heart. Children in famine, victims tortured by oppressors, helpless old people a burden to their sons, and the whole world of loneliness, poverty, and pain make a mockery of what human life should be. I long to alleviate this evil, but I cannot, and I too suffer."

So In closing I guess I have to look further into all of this. However I hardly find the more damming statements to be of little consequence or of innocent nature. To me this is in line with a very well documented series of statements from many elitists and proponents of "World Government" and their equally well documented (and self stated) desire for a "Scientific Dictatorship" of all other people.

Sorry for the long comment....


Robephiles profile image

Robephiles 5 years ago Author

The Scientific Outlook was written in 1931 when eugenics were viewed very differently than they are today or would be viewed just twenty years later after World War 2. World War 2 caused a drastic change in ethical outlooks and the idea of human rights. For instance, it was considered perfectly acceptable to bomb civilian areas like London by the Germans and Dresden by the US. It wasn't until after the war that these ideas changed it that was true of eugenics at the time.

Part of the reason I "brush these off" is because the work they are quoted from is not a philosophical work but a work of popular opinion. Nothing that Russell was saying at the time was considered especially heinous then, and he was writing it for the public. It is often held up today by people like Alex Jones without the context that he should be viewed in and two huge misconceptions are perpetrated by those who usually accept this conspiracy viewpoint.

The first is that this was somehow a "secret plan" or a viewpoint that the elite had. Russell was writing the work for popular consumption so it was hardly a secret or in any way an attempt to trick anybody. Second, is the idea that Russell had any real power in society. As an academic, he had influence, but college professors aren't exactly the most powerful setters of social policy.

As for Russell being an elitist, I don't disagree with that. I think he was, and especially in his younger years. I also think that he was overly insistent on his own way of philosophy being the only acceptable one but this is typical of a huge number of philosophers.


pressingtheissue profile image

pressingtheissue 5 years ago from Pa

Very enlightening. Thank you for having this discussion with me.


PhiMaths ATB profile image

PhiMaths ATB 4 years ago from Charlotte, NC, USA

A good introduction to Russell it has to be said. I was amused by the reference to Ockam's razor considering the complexity and ill-foundedness (in my opinion) of Russell's ramified theory of types.

On another note, perhaps Russell's relationship with Frege is worth mentioning?


conradofontanilla profile image

conradofontanilla 3 years ago from Philippines

Russell solved the paradox he had identified after writing with North Whitehead their book Principia Mathematic, with theory of types. It's like you are in steps of a stairway. When you talk about the first step, you are in the second step. Russell shunned systems building. He did not consider Thomas Aquinas a philosopher, who, he said, knew beforehand where he wanted to go and invented roads to go there. That could be why Christians who made Aquinas a saint did not like him. Anyway, Russell wrote a book, 'Why I am not a Christian."

Russell was involved in social and political issues. When he was a visiting professor in China, he remarked that China can adopt capitalist ideas but still remain true to its culture or its modified ideology of Marxism cum peasants, rather than proletariat. That's what Deng Xiao Peng did after Mao was gone.


Thedoctor 3 years ago

Thanks so much for this. You never know what's out there! It's an interesting sbcuejt, and points in the direction of the interesting (and hopefully not prophetic) Mike Judge film Idiocracy. I suppose this could also explain drivers. Every driver thinks that they are the best and it's always the other person's fault.

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