Monday, 19 March 2012 07:57

Bertrand Russell: Men of Ideas

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Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) was a British mathematician and Philosopher. He wrote books on both subjects, books that were well received by the public, including his Principia Mathematica and A History of Western Philosophy. In both books he summarized what was known in the field, sort of textbook fashion, and many students and lay folk benefitted from his writing.

In philosophy Russell considered himself an analytical philosopher. Whatever that is, what is evident is that he insisted on a philosophy that gave rise to what latter was called logical positivism, the emphasis on that which is verifiable and also influenced Karl Popper’s insistence that science is that idea which can be falsified. Thus, in a way, Russell indirectly influenced the development of contemporary philosophy.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, the father of the philosophy of languages, was Russell’s student, although Russell later came to see all that effort to understand the role of language in human beings construction of meaning as rubbish.

It is difficult to see what philosophical concept that Russell is the father of, though he wrote on most facets of philosophy.

Russell wrote on just about every topic that is publicly discussed and in that sense can be seen as very versatile.  His papers were generally that of reasoned opinions but nothing original and or seminal.

Consider his pacifism. He opposed the first and second world wars. But is pacifism a tolerable philosophy in a world where human beings have the capacity for good and evil and some can choose to get other people to support them and lunch wars of annihilation of other folk. Adolf Hitler had some ideas on ideal humanity and found followers for them and lunched a war to annihilate those that he considered inferior, Jews, Slavic persons and others. If one is a pacifist is one going to stay on the side line and permit Hitler and his goon squad to kill off the people he wanted to kill off? Obviously, to prevent Hitler and his Nazis from killing folk he had to be stopped.

The only war to stop a mad dog from biting people is to quarantine it and or to kill it. It was necessary to fight Hitler and his murderous allies, yet Russell attempted his pacifism during the first and second world wars.

Russell also opposed the American efforts in Vietnam.  Clearly, some wars ought to be opposed and others are just. There is such a thing as just wars. It seems to me that Russell was confused in his blanket pacifism and was rightly jailed for refusing to fight for his motherland.

Russell had shifting ideas on the issue of race. Like everything else he wrote his ideas on race seem problematic. Initially, he seemed to think that the Negro race would proliferate and eventually overwhelm the white race. He seemed to be saying that Negros would swamp Europe and to prevent that from happening he advocated controlling the rise in the population of Negroes in Africa. Such thinking led to the experimentation done on black folk to prevent them from producing children, to prevent inferior races from producing too many children. But later Russell seems to have changed his mind on the equality of the races and seem to have said that there is no reason to doubt the equality of the races. But if his earlier philosophy were adhered to a lot of damage would have been done, as it no doubt was done in the USA. He was inconsistent in his ideas. When folks easily change their minds some of their mind’s production could have led to havoc.

Initially, Russell was fascinated by socialism. Then he visited Russia and talked to Lenin and saw communism at work, not text book communist ideals, and was appalled by the inherent totalitarianism in communism.

Ipso facto communism means forcing people to embrace a pattern of living that communists deem the best, such as sharing property.

There is nothing in nature that says that property ought to be shared. Certainly, other animals do not share their properties. In nature animals, depending on their strength and cunning, take as much property as they can defend.

Communism entails using force to get human beings to conform to a mentally constructed ideal form of society. In real terms this translates to using the powers of the state to bring about a platonic idea of ideal society.

Platonism may be something students think about but to try to actualize it in the real world is to engage in the destruction of many persons, those not deemed ideal. It is pretty much like trying to actualize the Christian ideal of love your neighbor and care for your neighbor. On paper it sounds ideal to preach love for all humanity but how do you implement it? The Catholic Church tried to implement it and became the most oppressive organization known to man.

Ideals are mental constructs that are best left where they are, in the mind, but not at the outside world level. In the real world, matter, space and time works to make ideal ideas imperfect ideas.

Russell was a political activist and championed many causes. He was an early supporter of the women’s liberation movement. He worked for the women’s suffragette movement and advocated equal rights for men and women. He seemed to practice what he preached. He practiced a woman’s right to have control of over her body to the extent that he allowed one of his several wives to remain married to him and yet have affairs with whomever she liked and even produce children from those affairs. A woman has a right to her body and that includes having sexual affairs with men and women if she pleased, and even her husband has no say so in that regard.

This is the freedom of the decadent. How long would society last if such freedom is permitted? Society is controlled freedom, not license to do whatever the individual feels like doing. If what the individual feels like doing negatively affects other people he does not have the right to do it, and if he does it those adversely affected have the right to defend their selves, including arresting and jailing him, or even killing him.

Russell wrote a book on why he is not a Christian; in it, he provided the usual arguments militating against belief in God. I do not think that since the French enlightenment any one has believed that there are good reasons why god is a tenable hypothesis. Even the ontological argument of God been the first cause can be easily refuted; for if that argument holds true then something caused God to exist, ad infinitum.

You cannot accept the argument that something must cause something and then end it with God. That is the sort of argument that Marxists made by presenting history as progressing through contradictions in society and suddenly saying that in the Marxist state that those contradictions would be resolved, eliminated and history would end. If the logic of paradoxes is true then even in Marxist societies there would be contradictions hence the generation of new societies.

History cannot end with the communist state, just as the argument of causation cannot end with the postulation of the God hypothesis.

Russell stated this obvious truth and did not really say much that is not already stated by other observers.

As a public scholar, perhaps, Russell made intellectual ideas known to the general public and that was performing useful social function. But that is not to say that he came up with original ideas. What one learns from his epistemology and ontology is that he was aware of the philosophical literature of his time and taught it to his readers.

Russell wrote a great deal on other aspects of philosophy, including ethics.  Here his ideas over time changed.

What is ethics; is it objective or subjective? Is ethics not that which society or a group of people define as appropriate individual or public behavior? Is morality not a social construct?

The debate on ethics and morality is interesting but the fact remains that under extreme circumstances human beings can do anything. If human beings are hungry they would steal (in war times it is called liberating other people’s food). Hungry Europeans stole Native Americans lands.

And while we are at it, what natural law permits one person to have property and others not to have some property? In nature animals take what they need to survive, until other animals chase them off their property.

Property is a social construct, not a natural construct. Stealing is a social construct, not a natural one.

Of course, we have to punish antisocial behavior but that does not mean that in nature what criminals did was good or bad. Society decides what it wants to criminalize and that is all there is to it, to waste ones time arguing about what is ethical or moral behavior is to engage in abstraction.

Ethics is not a scientific issue but a social hence artificial construct. Science studies the workings of nature and in nature there is evidence that animals take what they need to survive.  In nature animals are territorial and stronger ones demarcate territories for themselves and chase others away from it. They do so for as long as they have the power to do so. Young and vigorous lions control large territories but when they get old younger ones chase them away and take over their territory.

Vigorous nations like the USA have the capacity to demarcate and protect large territories. But when they become old and weak their territories would be plundered by younger and more vigorous people. That is just the way it is and the rest is silly academic theorizing.

In sum, we can say that Russell was a well educated English eccentric aristocrat who shared the benefit of his learning with the general public. It is difficult to say that he said anything that other people have not already said. He was a public philosopher and mathematician, a teacher in the best employment of that term. His ideas had enormous influence on the people of his time.


Bertrand Russell.  A History of Western Philosophy. New York: Simon Schuster, 1946.

Bertrand Russell. Why I am not a Christian and other essays. London: George Allen, (1957)

Bertrand Russell. On the Philosophy of Science. Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1965.

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Ozodi Osuji Ph.D

Ozodi Thomas Osuji is from Imo State, Nigeria. He obtained his PhD from UCLA. He taught at a couple of Universities and decided to go back to school and study psychology. Thereafter, he worked in the mental health field and was the Executive Director of two mental health agencies. He subsequently left the mental health environment with the goal of being less influenced by others perspectives, so as to be able to think for himself and synthesize Western, Asian and African perspectives on phenomena. Dr Osuji’s goal is to provide us with a unique perspective, one that is not strictly Western or African but a synthesis of both. Dr Osuji teaches, writes and consults on leadership, management, politics, psychology and religions. Dr Osuji is married and has three children; he lives at Anchorage, Alaska, USA.

He can be reached at: (907) 310-8176