In this last post covering Bertrand Russell’s history of western philosophy I come to the school of philosophical thought to which Russell identifies himself as a member. Russell’s foremost contribution to philosophy was in the field of logic, and this is apparent in the methodical and relatively dispassionate approach he takes in his book to analysing the ideas of other thinkers through the ages. There is no doubt that he strongly opposes idealism and metaphysical thinking, and it is not clear to me whether this is entirely due to logical falicies, or whether there is an element of natural bias – a vice that we are all susceptible to.
Logic & Science
According to Russell, the great mathematicians of the 17th century were optimistic and anxious for quick results, and sometimes left the foundations of their work logically insecure. For example, it was apparently only at the end of the 19th century that a satisfactory definition of the word ‘number’ was provided. Kant had said that mathematical propositions were ‘synthetic’, and therefore their truth is a matter of belief rather than certainty. In his work ‘Principia Mathematica’, Russell aimed to show how pure mathematics can be deduced from logic, and therefore can be considered objectively true.
Modern advances in other fields, such as physics and psychology, have also affected received wisdom within philosophy. One example is the understanding of mind and matter. Common sense had always led us to think of the world as composed of ‘things’, which exist at various points in space and time. Advances in physics led us to think of things as being made up ultimately of atoms, which exist permanently. Einstein’s work led us to think that the world should be described in terms of ‘events’ rather than matter, with each event being related to other events in terms of space and time. ‘Matter’ then is perhaps just a convenient idea for collecting events into bundles, in order to help us make sense of the world. Quantum Theory undermined the orthodox belief in continuity of motion and showed that physical phenomena are discontinuous. At this point I am well beyond my understanding of physics, but I think the point is to show how advances in science have undermined conventional philosophical beliefs. Modern physics has also helped philosophers understand the nature of perception. What we perceive (e.g. see, hear or feel) in relation to an object must to some extent resemble the object if it is to be considered knowledge. This is only the case if there is a causal link between object and perception, which is not overly distorted by anything else. In regards to sight, we know that light waves link us to the object being perceived, but that they can change somewhat between the object and our eyes – light can be affected by gravity, or refracted. There are also potential physiological effects between our eyes and our brains. This suggests we can gain useful knowledge of the world through observation, but not complete knowledge.
Russell is describing an approach to philosophy that he calls ‘analytical empiricism’. It is characterised by disciplined logic and is consistent with the latest scientific understanding. It aims to solve specific problems, rather than create metaphysical systems. Russell believed that this is the only way of thinking that allows philosophy to actually solve problems and create new knowledge. However, he cautions that science cannot help us in understanding ethical questions within philosophy. One of the great errors throughout philosophy has been the failure to separate two questions: how does the world work, and what is the best way of living. The approach to the first question must be a disinterested search for truth, which examines all preconceptions. Even the greatest philosophers, starting with Plato, have allowed their view of how the world should be to affect their understanding of how the world is. This leads to error and confusion, and is a kind of self-censorship. This is most obvious within medieval Catholic philosophy, but is common throughout history. Philosophers like Russell believe that there is no way of achieving ‘true’ answers to questions of ethics. The appropriate response if this is true is a sense of humility in one’s own ethical position, and a sincere respect for the beliefs of others.