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Problems of Philosophy

Bertrand Russell

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Plot Overview

Background Information

Bertrand Russell was born into a noble family on May 18, 1872. His parents died when he was four, leaving him to the care of his grandmother who set his education in motion with tutors while he was very young. Russell studied at Cambridge University, where he excelled in mathematics from 1890 to 1893. He became interested in logic and philosophy and by 1897 had published his first book. He went on to become a Fellow and lecturer at Cambridge and to publish over seventy-five other works, including a critical mass of articles and essays. During his lifetime, Russell earned numerous honors, among them the Order of Merit in 1949 and the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1950. The Prize was awarded for his innovative work with Alfred Whitehead on Principia Mathematica, which initiated the formal study of modern logic. He died in England on January 31, 1971.

Russell's philosophical voice is deeply entrenched in the broad tradition of twentieth-century thought. His life has always been in the public eye, and since his publication of The Autobiography of Bertrand Russell, 1872–1967, his activity in this century has been a popular subject of philosophical and historical discussion. His academic career changed with his outspoken political life. The social temper in Russell's lifetime found his views controversial enough to condemn his thought. He opposed British involvement in the First World War and American involvement in the Vietnam War. He was also extremely antagonistic regarding nuclear arms and the administration of the Soviet Union under Lenin and Stalin. For his vocal protest, Russell was denounced as a communist, dismissed from Cambridge on political grounds in 1916, and imprisoned. He turned to public lecturing and writing, which he was to successfully pursue until his return to Cambridge in 1944. In 1945, he famously published the popular book A History of Western Philosophy.

Historical Context

Growing up, Russell was attracted to the liberal thought of John Stuart Mill. When at Cambridge, he encountered versions of the mainstream intellectual temper of his era, neo-Hegelianism and idealism. He studied under the idealists Ward, McTaggart, and Bradley. Russell's own thought, especially his first outlook on logic, was most influenced by Bradley. Russell would reject psychologism, with Bradley, but would also reject Bradley's metaphysics (monism) in favor of pluralism. Distinct from his teachers however, Russell maintained a firm confidence in the precedence of scientific knowledge. These features of his thought remained constant throughout the stages of Russell's career.

Russell's individual academic career truly began with his rejection of the tradition in which he had been trained, British idealism, the view that reduced reality and its observation to the work of a mind. Both Russell and his contemporary G. E. Moore famously adopted Platonic realism. Russell made a claim that all pure mathematics could be deduced from logical principles, a belief called logicism. He collaborated with Alfred Whitehead for ten years working on Principia Mathematica, which illustrated logicism with detailed derivations. After 1898, Russell submitted that all his philosophy would be structured and aptly described as logical atomism, in which some things would be taken as basic and some other things would need to be constructed from basics by way of careful logical processes. Russell, together with Moore and Wittgenstein, self-consciously practiced "philosophical analysis" in the early twentieth-century. The practice of analysis by Russell and Moore involved propositions and concepts, not ordinary language. Russell advocated the use of analysis for excavating the logical form of reality. For this methodology, he is known as one of the founders of Western analytic philosophy.

Philosophical Context

Russell's philosophy evolved over the course of his life. The stages of his career may be separated as extreme realism, moderate realism, and "constructive" realism. Russell's beginning beliefs held that everything that could be thought about or referred to has some kind of reality, some kind of being, which demands analysis. Then, Russell developed his theory of descriptions, which solved many of the denotation difficulties presented by his extreme view. With his theory of description Russell recognized that most names contained hidden definite descriptions, which enable Russell to adopt a moderate realism.

Though his new ideas made clear Russell's shift from extreme realism, his affinity for Platonic thought remained conspicuous with his theory that "ideas" or universals are objects with which we have acquaintance. Russell advocated his modified realism between the years of 1905 through 1919. In 1910, Russell began lecturing at Cambridge and became more interested in epistemology. In 1912, he published The Problems of Philosophy, which grew to be a very popular book. In this work, Russell critically appreciates British empiricist thought, focusing on Hume and Berkeley. The work held that knowledge from experience—empirical knowledge—is founded on a direct acquaintance with sense-data, the objects of experience. On this view, physical matter, of which we have only knowledge by description, is the best explanation for our experience of sense-data.

The Problems of Philosophy holds a fundamental relevance for the investigation of our ordinary lives. Its capacity as an introduction to philosophy blends with Russell's positive philosophic program. It has been maintained that much of the productiveness of Russell's career derived from his treatment of old problems with new logic. Russell introduces a number of other philosophers and schools of thought, which have notably preceded him. He sketches overviews of their positions and provides a context of philosophic problems common to all philosophy, problems like: public and private experience, personal identity, self-consciousness and consciousness of other minds, relations of space and time, and knowledge itself. Russell's own innovative theories cross any boundary between metaphysical and epistemological concerns. He is interested primarily in distinctions of knowledge of things (particulars) as opposed to knowledge of truths (universals) and with distinguishing appearance from reality.

Russell later changed his view and adopted constructive realism, which proposed that matter was logically constructed out of sense-data. He designed a large work, which would employ his multiple relation theory. However, he abandoned it owing to Wittgenstein's repeated attacks on this theory. Rudolph Carnap later continued work on the detailed constructions like Russell had planned. Russell gave up some of his notions about minds and sense-data and devoted most of his time to understanding modern physics. He later embraced a neutral monism, which William James and a school of American New Realists had already accepted. From 1919 forward, Russell's writings were in the main less influential than those from his moderate period. His intellectual authority seems to have been mitigated somewhat by the popular movement of logical positivism—the scientism of which he approved, and by ordinary language philosophy—the doctrines of which he strongly discouraged and denounced.

Notable philosophic responses to Russell's ideas can be found in the works of Hilary Putnam, Rudolph Carnap, J.L. Austin, and Ludwig Wittgenstein.

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