Jonathan Derbyshire enjoys a fresh look at Bertrand Russell
Some time during the First World War, Bertrand Russell met a philosopher named Petronievic. Russell was anxious to get first-hand news of the Serbian retreat from the Germans. Unfortunately, his interlocutor was more concerned with defending a thesis about higher geometry. The conversation continued for a short while before Russell gave up, concluding that Petronievic simply wasn't interested in discussing 'anything so trivial as the Great War'. Russell himself had once loved perfection in logic more than life, of course. There was cold comfort to be derived, he found, from the beauty of a realm of abstract objects distinct from the world of practical affairs. But after the outbreak of war in 1914, the everyday world pressed in on the philosopher to such an extent that social and political questions became his main preoccupation, and remained so for the rest of his life. Russell thought of himself as a "nonsupernatural Faust for whom Mephistopheles was represented by the Great War." The switch of emphasis was such that, in the words of his biographer Ray Monk, Russell became "famous, not for his philosophy, but for his politics".
These six volumes, each of which has been repackaged with a preface by a contemporary thinker, belong to Russell's 'public years'. They are specimens of the 'new kind of book' that he began to write once he gave up his lectureship at Trinity College, Cambridge. Now it is not quite right to say, as Monk does, that they contain no philosophy at all. It is the case, however, that they are the product of a profound disillusionment on Russell's part with the idea that philosophy, in its most abstract branches, gives us access to eternal truths laid up in some Platonic heaven or other. As a means of satisfying the 'impulse towards religious belief', philosophy was now a disappointment to Russell. But as a "clarifier", he says, "I have found it quite the opposite."
As Alan Ryan and John Gray make clear in their prefaces, this new conception of philosophy as providing the standards by which the beliefs of ordinary men are tested and clarified is central to the standpoint which Russell calls "rational scepticism", and which is best represented here by the Sceptical Essays, Why I am not a Christian and What I Believe. Russell follows Hume in holding that many of our beliefs are uncertain, not least those having to do with causality and induction, which continue to constitute a kind of 'scandal' for human reason. (It should be added that, like Hume, Russell is a master of discursive English prose.) The ordinary man would do well to suspend judgment on those beliefs for which the experts can find "no sufficient grounds for a positive opinion" Russell hopes that a rational defence of our belief that the sun will rise tomorrow will be forthcoming, but does not accept that a convincing proof has yet been offered. The widespread adoption of such sceptical habits of mind, Russell quite reasonably predicts, will "tend to diminish the incomes of clairvoyants, bookmakers [and] bishops", all of whom make their living out of the irrational hopes of others.
Russell also follows Hume in thinking that passions and desires are the wellspring of human behaviour. Only the acting out of a kind of destructive passion or rage could explain the slaughter of the Great War. The problem with this view is not that it might be false, but that it is inconsistent with Russell's utopian commitment to rational reform and his view that the passionately held opinions for which people are prepared to fight and die could ultimately be set aside. This tension, rather than some putative abandonment of philosophy altogether, perhaps explains the dissatisfaction some readers have felt with these essays and pamphlets. It may be, therefore, that Russell's most enduring lesson is one he would have preferred to downplay: that the "extent to which beliefs are based upon evidence is very much less than believers suppose." This is a recognition which is as corrosive of the hopes of the pacifist as it is of the dogmas and superstitions of the theist.
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