Bertrand Russell on "Why Study Philosophy"

In his article on “The Value of Philosophy,” Bertrand Russell attempts to make a case that the enterprise of philosophy is worthwhile for several reasons. It is interesting that this essay comes at the conclusion of a rather lengthy discussion of the problems of philosophy. Specifically, that there are a significant number of questions in the realm of philosophy that have not been adequately settled. Indeed, Russell is careful to tell us that certainty in philosophy is not really possible. So one of his major arguments is that philosophy is not important because of the answers, but because of the questions. It is not the destination but the journey. As far as he is concerned there is no real destination. “…it cannot be maintained that philosophy has had any very great measure of success in its attempts to provide definite answers to its questions. (p. 23)” He is careful to admit that in the areas where we have attained to certainty, we are no longer in the realm of the philosopher but of the scientist. This of course gives us some clue as to his definite conclusions with regard to numerous philosophical questions such as the nature of the material world, the reliability of the empirical method for obtaining knowledge, and the uniformity of nature.

He goes on at some length to discuss how the philosophical enterprise is a way to make life worth living; that is frees the mind from tradition and prejudice; and that it unites us with the world around us. Incredibly he makes these assertions dogmatically while decrying dogmatism. He speaks of “liberating uncertainty”, and that it is “unwise to pronounce dogmatically.” Furthermore, he seems to deprecate those practical sort of people who just live in the world, content with their assumptions unwilling to question the status quo. Whether or not philosophy has given us certainty on this issue, we know for certain Russell’s conviction on this matter. He definitely seems to look down on these simpletons. Concerning the unhappy life of people with convictions, uninterested in philosophy, he insists that if we are to be “great and free, we must escape this prison and this strife. (p. 25)”

While I agree that there is some utility in a continual quest for knowledge, and definite value in seeking the answer to philosophical questions, I disagree with the notion that certainty is unattainable. And if it is beyond reach, the philosophical enterprise might be satisfying to him, and to others but it is by no means obligatory or superior just because he seems to enjoy it. To insist otherwise would be a return to certainty. This whole perspective reminds me of my big german shepherd. He is very large, very loud, and can be frightening. But it is positively ridiculous to watch him chase his tail.

I disagree with Russell because he seems to contradict himself at so many points. I find it difficult to believe that he really believes what he is saying. He wants his readers to revel in questions with no answer, in a journey with no end, and in arguments without conclusion. All the while he makes numerous definite propositions about asserting the self, and “uniting the self with non-self”, “a wrong conception of the end [goal] of life,” that speculative interest is “killed by confining ourselves to definitely ascertainable knowledge.” (p. 26) He says, “philosophy is to be studied, not for the sake of any definite answers to its questions, since no definite answers can, as a rule, be known to be true, but rather for the sake of the question s themselves. (p. 26)” Yet in the previous paragraph he speaks of an “unalloyed desire for truth.” Which is it? Truth or liberating uncertainty?

Thankfully I have my own motivations for studying philosophy, for if I was left with Bertrand Russell I would definitely not choose this perpetual frustration as my life’s pursuit. I would rather shovel cow clap, though if we follow Russell’s path there is not much difference in outcome or expectation of success.

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