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Influential Figures in My Life: Bertrand Russell

March 10, 2013

Bertrand RussellThrough the books I have read, there have been many influential figures in the development of my thinking about the world. I am going to do a weekly segment on this. They are mostly philosophers, but there are also some spiritual and literary figures.

For me it all began with a book called, The History of Western Philosophy by Bertrand Russell, that my Dad gave to me to read. I read through it very enthusiastically, but looking back I understood much less of it than I thought I did on that first read. It was a great introduction to the subject, written by a philosopher with a rare talent for making such abstract and complicated subject matter more easily understandable, without losing the depth of the subject matter.

Having read this I searched out more books by Bertrand Russell. I was at university in Lancaster at this time living on campus, so I had easy access to a great library with most, if not all, of Bertrand Russell’s books. I didn’t want to start big with the more academic philosophy, so I began with some of his books that were collections of essays aimed more at the general public. In Praise of Idleness was one, Sceptical Essays another, The Conqest of Happiness, Why I am not a Christian. All of them I found to be fascinating and thought-provoking. Here was a person who thought these things through properly, in a way I would like to aspire to think things through. Little dogma, little prejudice, little ideology, just getting about the task of thinking about a subject. It was never about agreeing with all of his views, it was simply the method he used to reach his views that I wanted to emulate.

The next stage was to turn to the more academic work of Bertrand Russell. Much of which was surprisingly readable. The Principles of Mathematics was the center piece for me. I had done maths at school up to college level. But I had never understood the why or wherefore of it. For me, just following an arbitrary rule or formula because it works was not enough. I wanted to know why it worked. And no one has done a more in depth and thorough study into the basic why and wherefore of mathematics than Bertrand Russell, in this and some of his other books. It inspired me to further mathematical and logical study in an ever widening scope. Opening up whole fields of enquiry that I had never even been interested in before, because no one had thought to tell me the valuable reasons behind these subjects.

The most consistent and valuable part of Bertrand Russell’s work for me were the books on logic and philosophy of logic. Very few books on this subject are readable, and many would never get into it at all if not for the way a person like Bertrand Russell can portray the subject matter. His Logical Atomism, his theory of descriptions, his logical explanations for mathematics. All were very influential to me. Ultimately his arguments for pluralism in logic were the basis for my own views that I came to develop on the subject, which I studied in my dissertation.

The legacy was a philosophical approach that taught you to be mindful of all your premises and all your logical presuppositions, so that the meaning of what you were saying could be clarified and discussed with confidence.

If we are going to have a discussion or debate, we need to be clear and in agreement first in what it is we are talking about, and this is where logic and the theory of descriptions are valuable tools.

The later philosophy of Bertrand Russell in works such as, Human Knowledge: Its Scope and Limits and An Enquiry into Meaning and Truth, turned more to issues of epistemology, of the study of what knowledge we could have of the world. In this area Russell was an empiricist very much in the mold of David Hume. And like David Hume, he became a sceptic ultimately about our knowledge of the world. I always felt this was one area where Russell was not quite on the cusp of things. Illustrated by his persistent misunderstanding of Kant’s Philosophy. For further development in this line I would have to turn elsewhere. To Kant, Schopenhauer and other continental philosophers. And this would be a reflection for another article on another day.

His mission to find certain knowledge of the world remained incomplete. Even his late work, Human Knowledge, for all its attempts and all its ingenuity, could not provide us with a certain foundation to human knowledge. But what it did provide, along with most of his work, was the tools to help you to understand the world better for yourself. He may not have had all the answers, but he certainly helped me in my philosophy to make sure I formulated the right kind of questions.

Thanks for reading,

Here are some of the best of Bertrand Russell’s books in my opinion. Some of them are even in the public domain for free download now:

  • The Problems of Philosophy
  • Our Knowledge of the External World
  • Logic and Experience
  • An Inquiry into Meaning and Truth
  • History of Western Philosophy
  • The Principles of Mathematics
  • An Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy
  • My Philosophical Development
  • Why I am not a Christian
  1. My dad gave me the very same book! I was also obsessed with Russell for a very good part of my youth. In my case, it was later that I learned about his role as the originator of mathematical logic, an aspect that also greatly influenced me.

    • That’s quite a coincidence! He’s a great one to start out with because he uses such clear language, and covers all aspects of philosophy with his work. Its good to know of someone with a similar philosophical background.

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