Bertrand Russell Anti-Philosophy

‘Philosophy’ has never been Wisdom. Chapter23: Bertrand Russell 1: his human wisdoms

Bertrand Russell always struck me as lacking in human intelligence.  His mind whirred like a clock, endlessly doing logico-mathematical puzzles, and applying them to human matters.  He showed no awareness of the darkness and depth in men’s souls.  He was rationalistic, humanistic and pacifistic, and believed in his own goodness because goodness, you see, is what he intended.

He had no idea of the hearts of human beings or of nations.  He had simple-mindedly rationalistic and often materialistic thoughts on what nations longed for and would satisfy them. He thought for instance that the Arabs (and their nations) thought, valued and behaved just like the British did.

One does immediately thinks of the word ‘rationalistic’ to apply to that kind of mind, which for me means an utter lack, only seeing in mankind what one can apply logic, maths and science to.

When I was a little boy, a close relative of mine would stand at bus-stops absorbed in one of Russell’s books on politics (published by Victor Gollancz’s Left Book Club with the famous yellow covers).  My heart would sink at the thought of what was in it:  a simple-minded idea of what nations wanted and what would satisfy them.  A rationalistic and materialistic idea, no idea of the human heart and that of nations.


Let me start off with what we have about his own life:

In the prologue to his autobiography, he wrote that three passions had always governed him: ‘the longing for love, the search for knowledge, and[my]unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind’ (here).  That’s what he thought of himself.  (Nothing about being an old sinner and in being interested in looking after Number One.)

Also that love brings about ‘ecstasy’. — (What did he mean by ‘ecstasy’?  Was there some Ancient Greek meaning?  Or was he just talking about the physical ecstasy during sex!? Probably not.  Or was he saying that loving someone like God does, is ecstasy?  He wrote he had  now found it with his fifth wife, for heaven’s sake.)

As for his search for knowledge, he ‘wished to understand the hearts of men’ and ‘why the stars shine’ and to apprehend the ‘power by which number holds sway above the flux’.  The latter must refer to his love for mathematics.

As for the suffering of mankind, he lists some of the general evils and injustices which he cannot alleviate, and therefore he too suffers.

Russell on social and political matters:  

He said: ‘I won’t believe anything for which there is insufficient evidence’.  He favoured democratic socialism, apparently throughout his life.

He visited the Soviet Union as early as 1920, and the following two quotations are from the book he then wrote: The Practice and Theory of Bolshevism (1920) via .  

“I went to Russia a Communist; but….[I had] my own doubts…. as to the wisdom of holding a creed so firmly that for its sake men are willing to inflict widespread misery.”

“I am compelled to reject Bolshevism for two reasons: First, because the price mankind must pay to achieve Communism by Bolshevik methods is too terrible; and secondly because, even after paying the price, I do not believe the result would be what the Bolsheviks profess to desire.”

So, BR did tell  himself the truth about the evidence he saw, unlike many others of socialist opinion.

BR’s other political opinions are summarized below.  [They have been edited, unless otherwise stated, from philosopher James Mannion in what used to be the site netplaces and from here,] 

He protested against Western colonization (from here).

He opposed militarism and warfare. He protested against World War 1, which lost him his Cambridge job and landed him in prison for six months.  

He supported appeasement in the years before World War II, but later agreed that Hitler had to be defeated.

Russell called this stance “Relative Pacifisim” — that war was always a great evil, but in extreme circumstances (such as when Hitler threatened to take over Europe) it might be a lesser one. (So what’s the difference from everyone else?)

In 1948, he advocated a nuclear strike on the Soviet Union, arguing that war was inevitable so best get it over with before both sides had even bigger stockpiles of bigger weapons.  He later changed his mind and argued for mutual disarmament.  (That summary of mine may be incomplete, but as it stands it looks like BR eventually had the brilliant idea that one shouldn’t just drop bombs but come to an agreement not to!  Really original!) 

He protested against every major conflict from World War I to the Vietnam War.  He took a pro-Allies stand during World War II, but in the Cold War he remained an antinuclear activist, and at age 89 was imprisoned for a week for protesting.  He released a manifesto with Einstein and organized conferences.  

He opposed the Vietnam War, and with Jean-Paul Sartre organized a tribunal to expose American war crimes.

He was an early critic of the official story of the J. F. K. assassination.  His “16 Questions on the Assassination[?]” from 1964 is still considered a good summary of the apparent inconsistencies in the case.

On religion and sexual morality:

The substance of the next two paragraphs comes from here, and from philosopher Mannion in what used to be the site netplaces:

Russell wrote the books What I Believe, Why I Am Not a Christian, Marriage and Morals, and A Free Man’s Worship.  These and others were disapproved of by some American academics. They presumably gave the regular rationalist view that the trouble with Faith was that it lacked objective evidence, and that one should just go ahead and do goodness.

He wrote that millennia of philosophers trying to prove  that God existed, hadn’t worked. He mentioned the atrocities committed in the name of God as well as other side-effects of Christianity. He gave his evaluation of the teachings of Jesus (from here).  He was in favour of ‘freedom of sexual expression’ and against the hypocrisy and destructiveness of bourgeois morality.  (He had himself just emerged from the Victorian period in the UK.)

From here: Russell called himself a philosophical agnostic but practical atheist, in that he couldn’t absolutely disprove that God existed but the available evidence was overwhelmingly that He didn’t. 

(I would have thought that this was just the old discovery by Kant that the only things you can be absolutely sure of are logical truths like ‘all bachelors are unmarried’, and that statements about the world are never absolutely certain.  One can never be absolutely certain, for instance, that the sun is going to rise tomorrow or that God doesn’t exist.)

From here:  Russell wrote against Victorian morality; and that unmarried sex was not necessarily immoral if the two loved one another.  ( Love, love, love!  Only do sex if there’s love, then it’s alright!)   

From here are a couple of typically pat ‘controversial’ public statements by him:  ‘Men are born ignorant, not stupid.  They are made stupid by education.’  ‘The most savage controversies are those about matters as to which there is no good evidence either way.  Persecution is used in theology, not in arithmetic, because in arithmetic there is knowledge, but in theology there is only opinion.’

He was also a schoolteacher. He taught in China and was headmaster of the exclusive Beacon Hill School in England.  It existed from 1927 till 1942, and taught pupils an openness to progressive ways of thought on social matters(from here).

On Palestine and Israel:  Perhaps shortly after 1948, BR said that the founding of Israel was a bad thing because Arab states would now spend their money on arms rather than on uplifting their peoples (from here).   

What an amazingly insular thing to say! The question is: Do Arab governments uplift their peoples?  BR presumed that they do, that when he looked at the peoples of the Arab or Muslim worlds, he was looking at people like himself.  He didn’t take in that different cultures differentiate the way people are in their perceiving, thinking and behaving.

Someone has called this attitude the ‘mirror-image fallacy’ (from here) — you look at other peoples and see yourselves! 

In a letter to a Tel Aviv journal in 1963, he wrote (here):

“…if Israel were to make a magnanimous gesture, which might take the shape of agreeing to accept the return of all Arabs….and to finance the re-settlement of all those refugees who did not wish to return – then it might be possible to have serious talks with Arab Governments, which could lead to the normalisation of relationships.” 

“A further point would be a non-aggression pact, guaranteeing that Israel accepts her present boundaries to be final.”

“…the Arabs feel themselves to have been…wronged and are, therefore, not able to take the initiative.  It is in Israel’s…interest quickly to settle her dispute with the Arab world. It is, therefore, for Israel to make…generous steps which would remove the major source of grievance without endangering the basic Israeli requirement of acceptance.”

BR further concluded (here) in 1970 that ‘Justice requires that the first step towards a settlement must be an Israeli withdrawal from all the territories occupied in June, 1967.’  (I remember that the occupation resulted from the Arab nations rattling the sabre for months beforehand with their newly-bought arms and promising  to wipe out Israel and most of its population.) 

(There is more of the same from BR here.) 

My thoughts are:  Does he really think there’ll be peace after all that, and an Israel after all that? (Yes of course he does.) He presumes he can convince the Israelis to come cap in hand as supplicant sinners.  Hadn’t by 1963 the number of Arabs displaced in 1948 grown by their own accounts into the millions?  He sees the situation as if it were in dear old Blighty.  What he writes above is a gross example of the mirror-image fallacy, of not taking into account that different peoples are different.  

In another post, here, I give insights from three authors, here and here ,who aim to understand the unique features of the Arab way of mind, which is what shapes their personal behaviour and that of their nations. 

So, to repeat myself,  BR’s mind whirred like a clock on logico-mathematical puzzles, and applied it to human matters. 




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