The Value of Philosophy (According to Bertrand Russell)

Bertrand Russell in 1938
Russell in 1938

Nobel Prize winning philosopher, Bertrand Russell, is considered by many as one of the greatest logicians of the 20th century. In the closing chapter of his work The Problems of Philosophy he explains why you should value philosophy- chiefly because it will liberate you from your own prejudice.

The practical man

Russell begins with an examination of what is normally esteemed as the “practical” man. The “practical” man is defined as someone who “recognizes only material needs, who realizes that men must have food for the body but is oblivious of the necessity of providing food for the mind.”

That’s where philosophy comes in. According to Russell, philosophy is the food for the mind, even if it doesn’t always lead to tangible results. He writes:

“If you ask a mathematician, a mineralogist, a historian, or any other man of learning, what definite body of truths has been ascertained by his science, his answer will last as long as you are willing to listen. But if you put the same question to a philosopher, he will, if he is candid, have to confess that his study has not achieved positive results such as have been achieved by other sciences.”

Indeed, a reason for this may be, Russell purports, that once something is known in philosophy, it becomes a field in itself. For instance, Newton’s work was called “the mathematical principles of natural philosophy” and the study of the mind is now deemed physics.

Philosophy relieves prejudice

He continues, stating that  the man who has no tincture of philosophy goes through life imprisoned in the prejudices derived from common sense- “from the habitual beliefs of his age or his nation, and from convictions which have grown up in his mind without the co−operation or consent of his deliberate reason.” Adding that, “to such a man the world tends to become definite, finite, obvious; common objects rouse no questions, and unfamiliar possibilities are contemptuously rejected.”

However, once a man begins to understand and appreciate the value of philosophy “even the most everyday things lead to problems to which only very incomplete answers can be given.” Russell writes:

“Philosophy, though unable to tell us with certainty what is the true answer to the doubts which it raises, is able to suggest many possibilities which enlarge our thoughts and free them from the tyranny of custom. Thus, while diminishing our feeling of certainty as to what things are, it greatly increases our knowledge as to what they may be; it removes the somewhat arrogant dogmatism of those who have never travelled into the region of liberating doubt, and it keeps alive our sense of wonder by showing familiar things in an unfamiliar aspect.”

Then, speaking of the importance of philosophical contemplation he writes:

“The mind which has become accustomed to the freedom and impartiality of philosophic contemplation will preserve something of the same freedom and impartiality in the world of action and emotion…contemplation enlarges not only the objects of our thoughts but also the objects of our actions and our affections: it makes us citizens of the universe, not only of one walled city at war with all the rest. In this citizenship of the universe consists man’s true freedom, and his liberation from the thraldom of narrow hopes and fears.”

Conclusion

Russell’s perspective is as relevant today as it was over a hundred years ago when this work was published. All too often philosophy is thought of as some daunting subject, inaccessible to the average man, and fit only for people with too much time on their hands or scholars.

His perspective provides the important insight that though philosophical endeavors may not always result in the advancement of some tangible object or material need, they contribute to our own personal advancement through the liberation of our ignorance and give to us a greater dominion over ourselves. In fine, the study of philosophy is a conquest to overcome our rigid beliefs that hinder us from progress. It is an enlargement of ourselves that opens a world of wonder. In his poignant summation, Russell states:

“Thus, to sum up our discussion of the value of philosophy; 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 questions themselves; because these questions enlarge our conception of what is possible, enrich our intellectual imagination and diminish the dogmatic assurance which closes the mind against speculation; but above all because, through the greatness of the universe which philosophy contemplates, the mind also is rendered great, and becomes capable of that union with the universe which constitutes its highest good.”