By Bertrand Russell
New York: Simon and Schuster. Inc., 1950
175 pages

Comments by Bob Corbett
July 2012

I was delighted with his warning in the ¾ page preface:

“A word as to the title. In the Preface to my I said that I was writing not only for professional philosophers, and that ‘philosophy proper deals with matters of interest to the general educated public.’ Reviewers took me to task, saying they found parts of the book difficult, and implying that my words were such as to mislead purchasers. I do not wish to expose myself again to this charge; I will therefore confess that there are several sentences in the present volume which some unusually stupid children of ten might find a little puzzling. On this ground I do not claim that the essays are popular; and if not popular, then ‘unpopular.’”

I loved the humor of the beginning and he carries it though much of the book. There are some very funny parts of the essays, many would be worthy of a stand up comic speaking to a group of intellectuals. I would enjoy to meet those 10 year olds who, unlike his ‘unusually stupid’ ones, could understand very many of the sentences of this work. Nonetheless, the book is a great delight and challenge, even 62 years after it was published.


Russell leans to the view that philosophy is much like physics or chemistry. However, he accepts that this view is quite modern and that a more traditional sense of philosophy

":… has resulted from the attempt to produce a synthesis of science and religion, or perhaps more exactly, to combine a doctrine as to the nature of the universe and man’s place in it with a practical ethic including what was considered the best way of life.”

There was a traditional fear that philosophy would lead to skepticism which would be damaging to social order and lead philosophers into bad philosophy. Real skeptics have never been popular politically nor influential, but . . .

“. . . had served chiefly as bug-bears to be used by reactionaries in frightening people into irrational dogmatism.”

He continues:

“Change is one thing, progress is another. ‘Change’ is scientific and ‘progress’ is ethical; change is indubitable, whereas progress is a matter of controversy."

Russell wants to insist that claims of fact must be carefully separated from claims of value. Yet he himself makes this exact mistake when he confuses facts and values when speaking of the Holocaust. I was quite taken aback to read:

“If it were certain that without Jews the world would be a paradise, there could be no valid objection to Auschwitz; but if it is much more probable that the world resulting from such methods would be a hell, we can allow free play to our natural humanitarian revulsion against cruelty.”

Russell is assuming this is a matter of fact. It definitely isn’t. To choose a world where all the people EXCEPT Jews were to stay alive and these living folks would be in a “paradise” is itself a value for which Russell gives no argument at all. It’s the same fact/value confusion which he denounces earlier.

Overall this is a challenging, funny but overall quite persuasive essay. Even more delightful is the writing itself.

Russell characterizes philosophy, as he understands it, as closer to physics and chemistry than religion or value theory. Philosophy, in his sense, is well-characterized by John Locke’s empiricism. On Russell’s view virtually all scientists and the philosopher whom Russell awards the title, use the methods of scientific reasoning to tell us, not “what is,” but given the evidence available, what “is most likely of competing ideas.”

He examines some famous “philosophers’ (not in Russell’s sense of philosophy, but within tradition) and argues their theories produce social and political theories quite harmful to too many people. He especially attacks the views of Plato, Hegel and Marx.

He ties the term ‘liberal’ to the work of John Locke and argues that the social and political consequences are that the sciences such as economics, history, and the natural sciences could suggest the consequences of this or that social policy. One would not “know” for sure, but they would have the projected outcome and they would thus be more honest about it and would justify much less dogmatism and be more likely to create a better world for more folks.

He makes a very strong case indeed.


Russell begins with a distinction between general liberal learning in all fields of humanitarian study and the much more technical studies among professional scholars. His general position is that education for the general masses need not be only the very specialized knowledge that professional scholars fight about among themselves, but in a more general attempt to give the educated public a decent overview of human knowledge and behavior in all fields of learning. Having said that he says his focus in this essay is on what that view would mean to the field of philosophy as studied by the masses. He maintains:

“Philosophy had had from its earliest days two different objects which were believed to be closely interrelated. On the one hand it aimed at a theoretical understanding of the structure of the world; on the other hand it tried to discover and articulate the best possible way of life. From Heraclitus to Hegel, or even to Marx, it consistently kept both ends in view; it was neither purely theoretical nor purely practical . . .”

Russell sees philosophy as a sign post along the way to knowledge. It is an activity to rationally analyze some area of interest, clarify, probing, even speculating until that area develops the full rigors of “science,” then we are able to separate that area from philosophy and it takes its place among the recognized sciences.

What philosophy does about some important non-scientific areas of human thought is:

  1. To speculate on the “might be” of the area and what those possibilities look like.
  2. Discredit both dogmatism (claiming to know what one doesn’t) and skepticism (claiming we can’t know because we don’t NOW KNOW.

Philosophy, on this view,

  1. Treats important non-scientific areas with rational speculation and serious studies.
  2. But, it is not able to “settle” matters in a scientific manner.

Russell sees a very practical aim for philosophy with these four main planks:

  1. It must advocate a certain way of life.
  2. Unlike religion the appeal is to reason, not a sacred or privileged body of truths.
  3. It must not establish a church.
  4. Lastly, it must stress the importance of the intellectual virtues.

While I am most sympathetic with Russell’s prescription, and without me having articulated it as clearly as Russell, those rules might well have been seen as how I conducted myself as a professor of philosophy in all but my most advanced courses. Nonetheless I think it should be noted this is RUSSELL’S definition and much of the history of western philosophy has been closely integrated with religion and other forms of absolutism.

He argues that in the complexity of the modern times ethics must be expressed in a larger political and social world since a more radical individualistic ethics simply cannot survive and/or prosper in our world where most must work and live within society.

The essay moved me deeply. I taught philosophy for 36 years, and while I didn’t teach too many lower level courses, but when I did in such courses as Introduction to Ethics, or Philosophy of Education, or Critical Thinking, I taught in a Russelian manner but wish I had been more thoughtful about that fact itself. Had I read this essay in my early teaching years I would probably have sought even more chances to teach the “lower level” courses and have done them more self-consciously in the manner Russell suggests.


It was marvelous to read this essay 62 years after it was written. Russell says that by the end of the 20th century one of three outcomes is likely:

  1. The end of human life on the planet, if not of all life.
  2. Complete barbarism and much smaller human population.
  3. World unification with a single world government.

Obviously none of those have occurred so it makes it interesting to read Russell’s contra-factual reasoning. He tends to see a single benevolent world state to be about the only hope of avoiding the first two outcomes, and, as he sees it, it could be only the leadership of the United States which could achieve this outcome.

It was especially interesting that the current political situation of the time with the cold war between the U.S. and Soviet Union so dominating consciousness, that he even indicates that, while having large populations, neither India nor China would never, at least in the near future, be nations that mattered much to the global construct of the human world. Ah me, future prediction is indeed a weak phenomenon.


This is a quite funny and sarcastic attack on many major philosophers reducing all their theories to nonsense in a few very good jokes and twists.

I think the essay has little intellectual merit, but it is quite funny and well-written, certainly there are enough laughs and challenges to make it worth reading.


“As appears from the various instances that we have considered, the stage in which superior virtue is attributed to the oppressed is transient and unstable. It begins only when the oppressors come to have a bad conscience, and this happens when their power is no longer secure.”

Reformers often idealized the “goodness” of X group, thus want to destroy the very conditions that made the X. A challenging and provocative essay.


The speed with which popular ideas change and the lure of being famous and/or wealthy, pressures thinkers to assume much of current wisdom while trying, at most, to incrementally influence it.

Russell still believes in the usefulness and power of thinkers who pay less attention to the popular wisdom of the moment than to seek larger more future oriented insights.

Factors he identifies as leading to our modern “situation” are:

  1. Speed of new discoveries.
  2. Emotional “tones” change more quickly.
  3. The separation of public and private life is also hastened.

The root cause was the movement toward subjectivity. It has, on his view, gone too far. To have lost objective truth by attacking dogmatism should not lead to subjectivism, but to hard searches for evidence.


A number of these essays could have well been used as stand-up comedy routines; bits for a modestly intelligent audience, but none as much as this, the longest essay in the book.

Russell scours the history of thought through the centuries and looks at the whole globe. He wants to demonstrate that huge portions of popular belief are rooted in fear and dishonesty and that the typical human, himself and the reader included, are often guilt of such silly, even often harmful beliefs.

It is both a persuasive and very funny essay.


In this essay Russell limits himself to western culture. He claims the best examples of historical teachers were people (mainly men) who taught their own ideas. Ancient Greece was a model, the Dark Ages were lost, Medieval centuries were controlled by the church, but from the Renaissance until very recently great teachers returned though he believes few of them were connected to schools.

The modern school, however, is vastly different. One major area of difference is the attempt to offer education to nearly all. However:

“Something called education is given to everybody, usually by the state but sometimes by the churches. The teacher has thus become, in the vast majority of cases, a civil servant obliged to carry out the behests of men who have not his learning, who have no experience of dealing with the young, and whose only attitude toward education is that of the propagandist.”

Despite Russell’s insistence on the freedom of the individual teacher to be trusted to do an adequate job of teaching, Russell commits the same inconsistency he did in an earlier essay – he then announces certain values which the teacher CAN’T teach. The “proper” teacher has to have something like Russell’s quite liberal and individualist values.

I was especially delighted with this essay. He was attacking much that I deplored in my elementary thought college education (1945 – 1960). And yet in 1965 (18 years after this essay had been written) when I began my own teaching career at the university level, I HAD this exact intellectual freedom which Russell calls for. I often think the years from the mid-1960s to about the middle 1980s were a high point for liberal arts education in the U.S. and even in Europe. In my own case I had virtually absolute freedom of how and even what I would do with my classes, what to read, even where and when to meet were I able to get student agreement to the assigned place and time of classes.

Increasingly after the mid-1980s U.S. university education has become less friendly to liberal arts and much more directed toward providing students university level job training, not a challenge toward the student’s growth as a person and citizen. I find this tendency to be a tragic loss.


Russell considers what counts as a ‘helpful’ idea or pattern of behavior. He sums up his notion as:

“The ideas with which we shall be concerned may be broadly divided into two kinds, those that contribute to knowledge and technique, and those that are concerned with morals and politics . . . “

Early gains were: language, using fire, domestication of animals, agriculture, and writing. Later came mathematics, astronomy, articulation of all this learning, especially the concept of natural law. Later on come the large gains in the major sciences.

At the moral level he says:

“. . . the present state of the world and the fear of an atomic war shows that scientific progress without a corresponding moral and political progress may only increase the magnitude of the disaster that misdirected skill may bring about.”

Another great notion on Russell’s view is the “brotherhood of mankind.” Later a similar notion arose within Christianity. “Love one’s neighbor as one’s self.” The central issue was this brotherhood applied to all humans. Other later but important ideas were the notion of charity, and the gains during the French Revolution of liberty, equality and fraternity. However, liberty is a more difficult concept since it raises the question of whose liberty and for what purpose. Russell inquires about the liberty of the individual citizen and argues important parts include free speech, free press, protection from arbitrary arrest, all 19th century achievements. He also is encouraged by the increase in the dominance of both law and government across the globe.

He argues that unless the U.S. and U.S.S.R. join some sort of unified government humankind is unlikely to survive. While the analyses and arguments are powerful it was far beyond Russell’s capability to imagine a rising China. Again, so much for predicting the future!


Russell focuses on harmful systems of government and society since the results are much wider that the actions of individuals. His dominant concerns are:

  1. A belief that economic interest of one’s own nation requires gain against the interests of other nations.
  2. Pride of one’s own nation and interest is normally falsely perceived.
  3. Nationalism, sexism and racism are dominant current evils.
  4. Religious prejudice continues to be a harmful idea.
  5. The concept of the superiority of some single religion is another version of this harmful concept.


Russell runs through a group of fairly well known thinkers and literary folks he has known, but only with a couple sentences on each. He focuses his attention on two political people with whom he had some considerable contact – England’s Prime Minster Gladstone and the U.S.S.R. president, Lenin. While he recognizes the nearly diametrically opposed notions of each, he sees the two as very similar in the dept of each’s belief in his own system and the sincerity of each about those beliefs.

OBITUARY: Pp: 173 – 175

Originally printed in 1937, this essay was seemingly intended to be published after his death. He would have been about 65 at the time of that first publication. This essay now appears in this 1950 book when he was 78. He lived another 20 years.

The “obit” is humble, very funny, sensitive, yet at the same time self-aggrandizing, if a bit vague on his actual achievements. I enjoyed it very much!

Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu


Becoming Reading Thinking Journals


Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu