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Quotes from the Masters: Bertrand Russell

May 19, 2013

RussellIt has been said that man is a rational animal. All my life I have been searching for evidence which could support this.

Bertrand Russell

British author, mathematician, & philosopher (1872 – 1970)

Bertrand Russell was probably one of the very few thinkers in the 20th century who was a genuinely independent, and influential thinker. For he was one of the few whose philosophy and opinions were not dictated by his academic standing, or by ingratiating himself with his peers. As a result of this he became ever more marginalized in his later life by academic philosophy and philosophers who began to make it their business to pick apart his ideas. This, in the case of Russell, only increased his influence and appeal to people, as he became the philosopher renowned for making a genuine effort to make his ideas understandable to the general public. As such, throughout his career, and his many books, he came out with some great quotes along the way. This first one well illustrates his favoring of the empirical approach to philosophy. It may be said that man is a rational animal, but for many this is really just an assumption. Or it could be a moral prescription of what man ought to be on his best form, so to speak. But for Russell, he is not going to accept this without first finding some substantial empirical evidence to support it.

If a man is offered a fact which goes against his instincts, he will scrutinize it closely, and unless the evidence is overwhelming, he will refuse to believe it. If, on the other hand, he is offered something which affords a reason for acting in accordance to his instincts, he will accept it even on the slightest evidence. The origin of myths is explained in this way.

This is a great, psychologically insightful quote of Bertrand Russell. Throughout his life Bertrand Russell was very critical of mythical and mystical approaches to understanding things. It was the sense in which he could be seen as a positivist. The urge for a personally meaningful explanation, a story we can identify with, is very strong in humans. Bare facts very rarely are accepted, they need to be presented in a way palletable to people. As such, this explains modern trends in popular science to itself resort to mythical approaches to get more popularity for scientific theories. The truth is, I think we all do this either consciously or unconsciously, even Bertrand Russell did. So it is better to just be aware of this background influence and allow for it, rather than to attempt to manage to get to truth completely separate from it in some sort of pure, neutral, objective sense. For such would amount to a  myth in its own right.

Men fear thought as they fear nothing else on earth — more than ruin — more even than death…. Thought is subversive and revolutionary, destructive and terrible, thought is merciless to privilege, established institutions, and comfortable habit. Thought looks into the pit of hell and is not afraid. Thought is great and swift and free, the light of the world, and the chief glory of man.

It is clear that thought is not free if the profession of certain options makes it impossible to earn a living.

Here we see Bertrand Russell defending free thinking, something I very much admired and learned from Russell when I first started reading philosophy. He also hints here at the dangers of making thinking dependent on earning a living. We see how a certain conformity of opinions is promoted in institutionalized learning in science and philosophy, such that to go against this dominant trend is to put yourself in a very difficult position, as far as finding an outlet for you views and opinions. Is it a surprise that many capitulate their own thinking here in order to increase their power and influence by submitting to dominant academic ways and patterns of thinking? It is not a surprise really, but it is something we would do well to be aware of. For it is a dangerous tendency always lurking in any institutionalized form of being that perpetuates itself from one generation to the next.

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