Through the Eyes of Bertrand Russell

“Thus contemplation enlarges not only the objects of our thoughts, but also the objects of our actions and our affections: it makes us citizens of the universe, not only of one walled city at war with all the rest.” This quote, taken from Bertrand Russell’s writings entitled “The Problems of Philosophy”, suggest to the reader that philosophy is an approach to knowledge that frees the human mind from the shackles of complacency. Complacency in one’s knowledge leads the human mind to a state of deterioration that can only be cured through mind-widening contemplation. Philosophers such as Plato and Socrates theologized that true and absolute knowledge is unattainable; that the only truth in life that can ever be found is the truth of the absence of knowledge- of understanding and admitting that we know nothing. Even a critic of philosophy such as Bertrand Russell agrees with Socrates and Plato concerning the truth behind the “knowledge of knowing nothing” scenario.   Plato once attributed Socrates as saying, “the unexamined life is not worth living to a human.” This quote was meant to engage the average man to question his or her life. According to philosophy, we can never reach real knowledge until we begin to question our lives and contemplate the universe in wonderment. However, as Bertrand Russell points out, philosophy engages and enhances the mind, but philosophy does not retain the power to give answers to any of our many contemplations. This raises the question posed by Russell, “what is the value of philosophy and why [should it] be studied?”

What is the value of philosophy? Bertrand Russell attempted to answer this question by stating the following: 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 convictions which have grown up in his mind without the co-operation or consent of his deliberate reason. To such a man the world tends to become definite, finite, obvious; common objects rouse no questions, and unfamiliar possibilities are contemptuously rejected. As soon as we begin to philosophize, on the contrary, we find, as we saw in our opening chapters, that even the most everyday things lead to problems to which only very incomplete answers can be given.   The concept that Russell is attempting to bring to light here is that, the value of philosophy is philosophy’s ability to rouse the mind and keep the human soul from becoming stagnate and placid. Russell asserts that philosophy has the ability to expand the mind of the average human and help him or her live a more fulfilled life.

The effects that philosophy has on the human intellect are vast and unending. Before philosophy, we looked at the elements of our world as black and white, right and wrong, and up and down. However, the universe is not simply “up and down”; the universe is sideways, backwards, twisting, spiraling, horizontal, diagonal, crooked, straight, right and wrong, and black and white. The universe is unending and unpredictable, and since the universe contains everything, the universe retains the characteristics of everything. To retain the characteristics of both right and wrong, would take away the universe’s ability to provide humanity with any definite answers. Thus, philosophy was created in attempts to ponder these never-ending and unanswerable universal questions.

Without the contemplation associated with philosophy, we will never be able to progress mentally, emotionally, or scientifically. In fact, as Russell pointed out, philosophy has brought forth some of our world’s most influential scientific discoveries. Russell stated: As definite knowledge concerning any subject becomes possible, this subject ceases to be called philosophy, and becomes a separate science. The whole study of the heavens, which now belongs to astronomy, was once included in philosophy; Newton’s great work was called ‘the mathematical principles of natural philosophy’. Similarly, the study of the human mind, which was a part of philosophy, has now been separated from philosophy and has become the science of psychology.

However, despite the unending and unlimited amount of possibilities and intelligence that the universe retains, the human mind has limits. Socrates is hailed as the world’s most brilliant and knowledgeable philosophers. Yet, however strange it may seem to the “practical man”, as Bertrand Russell asserted, Socrates is the most wise and knowledgeable philosopher because he knows that he is ignorant to the truths of reality. Socrates stated, “true knowledge exists in knowing that you know nothing.” We are but sentient beings trapped in what we know as “reality”. But, what is “reality”? What is real? Because of the limitations of the mind, we are unable to answer these questions. So, would real knowledge not be to accept the fact that “reality” cannot and will not ever be understood?

A scientist can attempt to plug numbers into a calculator, or draw complicated diagrams, or plot points on a graph in attempts to understand the questions of reality, but he/she will never be able to answer these questions with irrevocable certainty.   Despite the impossibility of answering our universal questions, we must continue to contemplate, for as Bertrand, Plato, and Socrates (and the United Negro College Fund) each pointed out in their own unique ways, “a mind is a terrible thing to waste.” In many ways, Bertrand Russell’s theology concerning philosophy emanates many similarities to Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave.” The practical man is, as defined by Russell, “one who recognizes only material needs, who realizes that men must have food for the body, but is oblivious of the necessity of providing food for the mind.”

These “practical men” are similar to the cave-dwellers in Plato’s allegory in that they keep hidden within the confines of their environments and never wonder if there is anything “outside” of their mental confinement. Also, if anyone ever ventured out of “the cave”, no one would be able to believe their stories about the “outside world” when they returned. Plato once stated, “those who are able to see beyond the shadows and lies of their culture will never be understood, let alone believed, by the masses.”   Each of these men theologize that philosophy is the love of wisdom, for true wisdom is ignorance. I think that philosophy does lead people to become lovers of wisdom. Philosophy asks us to seek out knowledge and question our situations. Exercising such practices can only deepen one’s worldly wisdom and prompt individuals to love the wisdom that they retain. As J.S. Mill once said, “it is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.” Philosophy has the utmost practical value. Like Socrates said, “the unexamined life is not worth living to a human.” What is more practical than living a fulfilled and meaningful life?

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