Bertrand Russell Value of Philosophy

Bertrand Russell, "The Value of
Abstract: Russell distinguishes between the practical and the philosophic mind,
compares the relation of science and philosophy, and traces the major goals of
philosophy in chapter fifteen of his Problems of Philosophy.
1. How would you describe Russell's practical person?
2. Why not live one's life as a practical person?
3. What are the goals of philosophy?
4. What does Russell think is the central value of philosophical inquiry?
5. Characterize the instinctive individual.
6. What is "enlargement of self"?
7. How does philosophical thinking relate to living and acting in the world? Suggest some
Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) was a philosopher, mathematician, and social reformer.
A. A few biographical points are worth mentioning:
1. Russell's parents died when he was a child; John Stuart Mill was his godfather.
2. He taught at Trinity College, Cambridge but was dismissed because of his pacifist
activities during World War I.
3. He supported himself through lecturing and writing from 1919 until the late 1930's.
4. He accepted a position of the City College of New York, but before he could accept his
duties, a judge denied his position saying Russell was a threat to "public health, safety
and morals."
5. The Nobel Prize Committee described him as "one of our time's most brilliant spokesmen
of rationality and humanity, and a fearless champion of free speech and free thought in
the West."
6. Russell co-authored with Alfred North Whitehead, Principia Mathematica. He had hoped to
reduce mathematics to logic.
B. Notes are arranged in response to the questions stated above in reference to Russell's
chapter "The Value of Philosophy" edited from The Problems of Philosophy available on
this site: "Enlargement of Self." For the unedited version, see the Further Reading section
1. How would you describe Russell's practical person?
a. The practical mind is a Philistine: a person deficient in liberal culture, according to
Russell: someone whose interests are material and commonplace.
b. The instinctive man is practical as is the man of self-assertion described later. He is not
interested in providing for society and not interested in "goods for the mind."
His friendships are "friendships of utility," not as Aristotle describes "friendships of the
good." The practical person is interested in people for what they can do for him.
d. The practical person is more interested in "the answer" rather than how one obtains an
e. He has a "them against us" mentality. E.g., Vince Lombardi, the well-known American
football coach, is famously known for saying, "Winning isn't everything, it's the only
thing" and as well, he stated, "Show me a good loser, and I'll show you a loser."
Contrast Lombardi's attitude with, for example, with Leo Buscaglia's prescription to
"celebrate life" and "develop a passion for many things."
2. Why not live one's life as a practical person?
The practical person recognizes material needs; he is less aware of goods of the mind.
For example, philosophy can give a different kind of value to life—not something
superadded to material value, but a value intrinsically different. Consider what Socrates
said about "tending your soul." as a means to a life of excellence.
a. The philosophical mind has an awareness that goes beyond the daily round to an
understanding of life and the world.
b. Generally the practical person does not recognize basic truths about everyday life such
 In general, choices cannot justified by their consequences.
 Perception is not reality. How things appear to be is less important than how they
 The excuse that "things turned out all right" is not always sufficient. Often, the
practical person is unaware of true consequences.
 You can be right for the world, even though the world is not right for you.
 The practical person often does not notice the world and the people in it because of
his own worries that tend to feed upon themselves.
3. What are the goals of philosophy?
First, Russell looks at the relation between science and philosophy in the past as a
question which must be answered first.
a. Consider the following sketch of the origins of the sciences from persons who were
considered at the time to be philosophers but are now considered to be some of the
founders of the various sciences.
Philosophical Origins of the Sciences
582?500? BC
Pythogorean theorem; geometry
irrationals, number theory
300 BC
Elements (300 BC)
490?430 BC
On Nature: theory of evolution
De Anima (350 BC)
460?377? BC
Airs, Waters, and Places (400
Astronomia nova (1609)
De Revolutionibus Orbium
Coelestium (1543)
Epitome of Copernican
Astronomy (1618-1621)
The Starry Messenger (1610)
Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia
Mathematica (1687)
Traité Élémentaire de
Chimie (1789)
New System of Chemical
Philosophy (1808)
Course of Positive
Philosophy (1830-1842)
Logic of the Moral
Sciences (1843)
Suicide: A Study in
Sociology (1897)
System der Philosophie (1889)
Principles of Psychology (1890)
Conditioned Reflexes (1926)
Hence, as soon as definite knowledge concerning any subject becomes possible, this
subject draws its own skilled practitioners. The subject leaves philosophy and becomes a
Questions with definite answers come from fruitful presuppositions and are placed in
the sciences. Philosophy, like science, aims at knowledge, but that knowledge can only
come to fruition in another age in a science born from philosophical inquiry.
Consider the example that the distinction between moral philosophy and natural
philosophy was the main division of the curriculum in many universities as late as
the beginning of the twentieth century.
Consider also the terminal degrees given in many different fields of knowledge such
as literature, science, music, and so-forth are PhD's—i.e., Doctor of Philosophy.
What does Russell think is the central value of philosophical inquiry?
Russell gives the examples of philosophical questions in the following passage:
 "Has the universe any unity of plan or purpose, or is it a fortuitous concourse of
atoms? Is consciousness a permanent part of the universe, giving hope of
indefinite growth in wisdom, or is it a transitory accident on a small planet on
which life must ultimately become impossible? Are good and evil of importance to
the universe or only to man? Such questions are asked by philosophy, and
variously answered by various philosophers."
Notice that these questions exemplify the main divisions of philosophy studied
previously in these notes:
a. Russell's questions "Has the universe any unity of plan or purpose? Is consciousness
a permanent part of the universe?" is a metaphysical or ontological question.
b. Russell's question "Is there hope of indefinite growth in wisdom?" belongs
to epistemology.
And, finally, the question "Are good and evil subjective?" represents the divisions
of axiology which includes the subdivisions of ethics and æsthetics.
To attempt to Russell's questions we would investigate these main fields of
philosophical inquiry:
Ontology (Metaphysics): the study of what is really real.
a. Epistemology: the study of knowledge—its scope and limits.
b. Axiology: the study of values.
 Ethics: the study of the good and what constitutes a good life.
 Æesthetics: the study of the beautiful.
As far as the main value of philosophy, Russell says philosophy seeks knowledge like
science, but is different from science.
Recognizing that there is no absolute certainty,
philosophy shows unsuspected possibilities about
matters of fact. Consider, for example, Norwood
Russell Hanson's question: "Do Kepler and Tycho
see the same thing in the east at dawn?"
a. Hence, philosophy increases the possibility of knowledge through the reduction of
Russell says the chief value is the "greatness of objects which it contemplates."
Thus it is reasonable to infer the object of epistemology is truth, that of ontology
is reality, that of ethics is the good, that of æsthetics is beauty.
Thus, philosophy gives freedom from narrow and practical aims: an escape from the
daily round.
4. Characterize the instinctive individual.
The instinctive person lives in a prison of his own making—much like an animal aware
only of what it senses and feels.
a. The instinctive person tends not to look beyond what is before him at the moment.
b. Being unaware of the larger world can put our private world in ruins when we do not
think about the meaning of change and cause.
5. What is "enlargement of self"?
"Enlargement of self" is Russell's expression for the person of liberal culture, wide
interests, reflection, understanding, and self-motivation.
a. Russell's phrase "a share in infinity" denotes the approach of synoptic philosophy.
Consider the following example: What, specific essential information could an expert in
each the following fields of knowledge advise about the purchase of floor covering in
the newly proposed science building? The person of wide interests would be able to
state three or four crucial factors for each of the following fields: anthropology, art,
astronomy, botany, chemistry, communications, computer science, ecology,
economics, geography, geology, history, linguistics, literature, mathematics, music,
physical education, physics, political science, psychology, religion, sociology, theatre
Enlargement of self takes an objective view to escape from the instinctive circle of
the daily round. When you see yourself as a process, you see yourself developing as
you will be. (E.g., why are beginners afraid to make mistakes? After all, if one did
not make mistakes, one would not be a beginner.)
Do not define yourself in reaction to what others say you must do: self-reliance
Pursue an interest for its own sake—not what it can do for you. Recognize that there
are many possibilities for solutions—not just the pragmatic or dogmatic "right or
wrong" dichotomy.
Being motivated to seek knowledge leads to a richer view of the world.
b. By way of contrast, the way of self-assertion views the world as a means to its own
end and sees the world in terms of itself: pragmatic, dogmatic, instinctive, and
On this view, getting results or getting the right answer is more important that
understanding how such things are accomplished.
The practical mind leads to a limited and impoverished view of the world—there is a
lack of creativity and a lack of play with things.
If one is self-assertive, then sometimes minor slights are taken personally. There
might be other reasons for an individual's behavior that do not involve you.
Enlargement of self does not shape such dualisms as the "them against us"
6. How does philosophical thinking relate to living and acting in the world? Suggest some
The key to this question is "impartial contemplation." Taking sides in interpersonal almost
always involves a dogmatic position.
a. Our external physical states such as money, job, car, make little difference if one is
reaching one's life goals. The main concern may be happiness vs. misery rather than a
question of being an auto mechanic or a corporation executive.
b. The philosophic mind is open and nonjudgmental. Such a person does not expect other
people or situations to change just to fit what that person wants in order for that
person to be happy.
The philosophic mind has the recognition that it could be wrong in any situation.
The Wikipedia entry on Bertrand Russell is recommended for an overview of Russell's
life and works.
Further Reading:
Bertrand Russell: A summary of Russell's life and work in logic, philosophy, and other
writings in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy by A. E. Irvine.
What Desires are Politically Important?: Bertrand Russell's Nobel Lecture on the occasion
of receiving the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1950.
The Problems of Philosophy: Russell's book placed on the Web by Andrew Chrucky.
Writings by Bertrand Russell: Electronic Texts on the Web: Links to some of Russell's
books and essays on the Web by John R. Lenz on behalf of the Bertrand Russell Society.
“The nature of mind precludes any discovery or deduction, whether physical or
moral, until experiments have been made, or proofs investigated; and the
progress of science during the last most conclusively teaches us, that the last
attainment of a philosophic mind, as the result of all its inductive enquiries, is
the poser of forming a simple proposition. To this end, how did Newton toil, that
he might trace the demonstrations which enabled him to assert the laws of the
planetary system!” Rev. Richard W. Dickinson, “On the Origin of Our Idea
Respecting God,” in Literary and Theological Review (New York: Franklin Knight)
(December, 1835) Vol. II, No. VIII, 568.