Site hosted by Angelfire.com: Build your free website today!

Quotes from Bertrand Russell

and a few comments and book reviews

Selected by Alan Nicoll

Autobiography, Vol. II
Letter to Miss Rinder, July 30, 1918 (p. 119):
"How could anyone, approving the free man's worship, expect me to join in the trivial self-righteous moral condemnation of the Germans? All moral condemnation is utterly against the whole view of life that was then new to me but is now more and more a part of my being. I am naturally pugnacious, and am only restrained (when I am restrained) by a realisation of the tragedy of human existence, and the absurdity of spending our little moment in strife and heat. That I, a funny little gesticulating animal on two legs, should stand beneath the stars and declaim in a passion about my rights--it seems so laughable, so out of all proportion. Much better, like Archimedes, to be killed because of absorption in eternal things. And when once men get away from their rights, from the struggle to take up more room in the world than is their due, there is such a capacity of greatness in them. All the loneliness and the pain and the eternal pathetic hope--the power of love and the appreciation of beauty--the concentration of many ages and spaces in the mirror of a single mind-- these are not things one would wish to destroy wantonly, for any of the national ambitions that politicians praise. There is a possibility in human minds of something mysterious as the night-wind, deep as the sea, calm as the stars, and strong as Death, a mystic contemplation, the "intellectual love of God." Those who have known it cannot believe in wars any longer, or in any kind of hot struggle. If I could give to others what has come to me in this way, I could make them too feel the futility of fighting. But I do not know how to communicate it: when I speak, they stare, applaud, or smile, but do not understand."

(p. 227): "Young children in a group cannot be happy without a certain amount of order and routine. Left to amuse themselves, they are bored, and turn to bullying or destruction. In their free time, there should always be an adult to suggest some agreeable game or amusement, and to supply an initiative which is hardly to be expected of young children."

Epilogue (to early version of the Autobiography) (p. 232): "Ever since puberty I have believed in the value of two things: kindness and clear thinking. At first these two remained more or less distinct; when I felt triumphant I believed most in clear thinking, and in the opposite mood I believed most in kindness. Gradually, the two have come more and more together in my feelings. I find that much unclear thought exists as an excuse for cruelty, and that much cruelty is prompted by superstitious beliefs."

Letter to H. G. Wells, May 24, 1928 (p. 267): "A. S. Neill . . . who is in many ways an admirable man, allows such complete liberty that his children fail to get the necessary training and are always going to the cinema, when they might otherwise be interested in things of more value. Absence of opportunity for exciting pleasures at this place [Russell's school] is, I think, an important factor in the development of the children's intellectual interests."

Autobiography, Vol. III
"There are certain things that our age needs, and certain things that it should avoid. It needs compassion and a wish that mankind should be happy; it needs the desire for knowledge and the determination to eschew pleasant myths; it needs, above all, courageous hope and the impulse to creativeness. The things that it must avoid and that have brought it to the brink of catastrophe are cruelty, envy, greed, competitiveness, search for irrational subjective certainty, and what Freudians call the death wish." (p. 23-24)

Authority and the Individual
p. 18-19: "There is over a large part of the earth's surface something not unlike a reversion to the ancient Egyptian system of divine kingship, controlled by a new priestly caste. Although this tendency has not gone so far in the West as it has in the east, it has, nevertheless, gone to lengths which would have astonished the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries both in England and in America. Individual initiative is hemmed in either by the state or by powerful corporations, and there is a great danger lest this should produce, as in ancient Rome, a kind of listlessness and fatalism that is disastrous to vigorous life. I am constantly receiving letters saying: 'I see that the world is in a bad state, but what can one humble person do? Life and property are at the mercy of a few individuals who have the decision as to peace or war. Economic activities on any large scale are determined by those who govern either the state or the large corporations. Even where there is nominally democracy, the part which one citizen can obtain in controlling policy is usually infinitesimal. Is it not perhaps better in such circumstances to forget public affairs and get as much enjoyment by the way as the times permit?' I find such letters very difficult to answer, and I am sure that the state of mind which leads to their being written is very inimical to a healthy social life. As a result of mere size, government becomes increasingly remote from the governed and tends, even in a democracy, to have an independent life of its own. I do not profess to know how to cure this evil completely, but I think it is very important to recognize its existence and to search for ways of diminishing its magnitude."

The Conquest of Happiness
"In adolescence, I hated life and was continually on the verge of suicide, from which, however, I was restrained by the desire to know more mathematics. Now, on the contrary, I enjoy life; I might almost say that with every year that passes I enjoy it more. This is due partly to having discovered what were the things that I most desired and having gradually acquired many of these things. Partly it is due to having successfully dismissed certain objects of desire . . . as essentially unattainable. But very largely it is due to a diminishing preoccupation with myself . . . . I learned to be indifferent to myself and my deficiencies; I came to center my attention increasingly upon external objects." (p. 17)

"This man is perpetually incurring his own disapproval . . . . He has an image of himself as he thinks he ought to be, which is in continual conflict with his knowledge of himself as he is." (p. 18)

". . . undue emphasis upon the achievement as opposed to the activities connected with it . . ." (p. 23) Comment: I failed at fiction writing because I emphasized successful writing rather than being interested in the problems for their own sake. I wanted, not to write, but to have written. In a word, I didn't enjoy the writing.

". . . the truth is that they are unhappy for some reason of which they are not aware, and this unhappiness leads them to dwell upon the less agreeable characteristics of the world in which they live." (p. 26)

"I have frequently experienced myself the mood in which I have felt that all is vanity; I have emerged from it not by means of any philosophy, but owing to some imperative necessity of action . . . . The feeling is one born of a too easy satisfaction of natural needs." (p. 28)

"The habit of looking to the future and thinking that the whole meaning of the present lies in what it will bring forth is a pernicious one. There can be no value in the whole unless there is value in the parts. Life is not to be conceived on the analogy of a melodrama in which the hero and heroine go through incredible misfortunes for which they are compensated by a happy ending. I live and have my day, my son succeeds me and has his day, his son in turn succeeds him. What is there in all this to make a tragedy about?" (p. 31-32) Comment: The first half of the paragraph is particularly relevant to public education, which has the habit of looking on education as having meaning in the future life of the students. The last half of the paragraph sounds a bit hollow; nice try, but death is still a tragedy, both to the one dying, and to those losing the loved one.

A History of Western Philosophy
"There is, however, a more general argument against reverence, whether for the Greeks or for anyone else. In studying a philosopher, the right attitude is neither reverence nor contempt, but first a kind of hypothetical sympathy, until it is possible to know what it feels like to believe in his theories, and only then a revival of the critical attitude, which should resemble, as far as possible, the state of mind of a person abandoning opinions which he has hitherto held. Contempt interferes with the first part of this process, and reverence with the second. Two things are to be remembered: that a man whose opinions and theories are worth studying may be presumed to have had some intelligence, but that no man is likely to have arrived at complete and final truth on any subject whatever. When an intelligent man expresses a view which seems to us obviously absurd, we should not attempt to prove that it is somehow true, but we should try to understand how it ever came to seem true. This exercise of historical and psychological imagination at once enlarges the scope of our thinking, and helps us to realize how foolish many of our own cherished prejudices will seem to an age which has a different temper of mind." (p. 39)

"It should be observed, further, that the view which substitutes the consensus of opinion for an objective standard has certain consequences that few would accept. What are we to say of scientific innovators like Galileo, who advocate an opinion with which few agree, but finally win the support of almost everybody? They do so by means of arguments, not by emotional appeals or state propaganda or the use of force. This implies a criterion other than the general opinion. In ethical matters, there is something analogous in the case of the great religious teachers. Christ taught that it is not wrong to pluck ears of corn on the Sabbath, but that it is wrong to hate your enemies. Such ethical innovations obviously imply some standard other than majority opinion, but the standard, whatever it is, is not objective fact, as in a scientific question. This problem is a difficult one, and I do not profess to be able to solve it. For the present, let us be content to note it." (p. 118)

"[Aristotle's Ethics] appeals to the respectable middle-aged, and has been used by them, especially since the seventeenth century, to repress the ardors and enthusiasms of the young. But to a man with any depth of feeling it cannot but be repulsive." (p. 173)

"There is little of the true philosophic spirit in Aquinas. He does not, like the Platonic Socrates, set out to follow wherever the argument may lead. He is not engaged in an inquiry, the result of which it is impossible to know in advance. Before he begins to philosophize, he already knows the truth; it is declared in the Catholic faith. If he can find apparently rational arguments for some parts of the faith, so much the better; if he cannot, he need only fall back on revelation. The finding of arguments for a conclusion given in advance is not philosophy, but special pleading. I cannot, therefore, feel that he deserves to be put on a level with the best philosophers either of Greece or of modern times." (p. 463) Comment: There's nothing wrong with "special pleading" as a partial method; that is, I come up with a theory, I cast about for arguments in favor of it (special pleading) but I also seek flaws and counter-arguments. Philosophizing then can be looked at as a process of innovation, "special pleading," and criticism. The "sin" would be to omit self-criticism.

"Since the world is what it is, it is clear that valid reasoning from sound principles cannot lead to error; but a principle may be so nearly true as to deserve theoretical respect, and yet may lead to practical consequences which we feel to be absurd. There is therefore a justification for common sense in philosophy, but only as showing that our theoretical principles cannot be quite correct so long as their consequences are condemned by an appeal to common sense which we feel to be irresistible. The theorist may retort that common sense is no more infallible than logic. But this retort, though made by Berkeley and Hume, would have been wholly foreign to Locke's intellectual temper." (p. 606)

Quoting Locke: " . . . where is the man that has uncontestable evidence of the truth of all that he holds, or of the falsehood of all he condemns; or can say, that he has examined to the bottom all his own or other men's opinions? The necessity of believing without knowledge, nay, often upon very slight grounds, in this fleeting state of action and blindness we are in, should make us more busy and careful to inform ourselves than to restrain others . . . . There is reason to think, that if men were better instructed themselves, they would be less imposing on others." (p. 609; attributed to Locke, Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Book IV, Ch. XVI, Sec. 4)

From Joe Park: Bertrand Russell on Education, Ohio State University Press, 1963
Russell's "supreme moral rule": "Act so as to produce harmonious rather than discordant desires." (p. 27)

"Russell has concluded that the good life is one inspired by love and guided by knowledge, an ethical principle which one philosopher has been moved to call the greatest since the golden rule." (p. 27)

" . . . when Russell speaks of knowledge, he is speaking of knowledge of a scientific nature and not of an ethical nature. In fact, he has confessed that he does not believe that there is any such thing as ethical knowledge. He holds that the whole effectiveness of any ethical argument lies in its scientific part; that is, 'in the proof that one kind of conduct . . . is a means to an end which is widely desired. I distinguish, however, between ethical argument and ethical education. The latter consists in strengthening certain desires and weakening others.'" (p. 27-28; Russell quote referenced as Why I Am Not a Christian, p. 62)

Quoting Russell: "If . . . you can first stimulate the child's desire to know, and then, as a favor, give him the knowledge he wants, the whole situation is different. Very much less external discipline is required, and attention is secured without difficulty. To succeed in this method, certain conditions are necessary, which Madam Montessori successfully produces among the very young. The tasks must be attractive and not too difficult. There must, at first, be the example of other children at a slightly more advanced stage. There must be no other obvious pleasant occupation open to the child at the moment. There are a number of things the child may do, and he works by himself at whatever he prefers . . . But I think the broad principle that the impulse of education should come from the pupil can be continued up to any age." (p. 61-62; Russell quote referenced as Education and the Good Life, p. 256)

Quoting Russell: "[The man] who holds concentrated and sparkling within his own mind as within a camera obscura, the depth of space, the evolution of the sun and the planets, the geological ages of the earth, and the brief history of humanity, appears to me to be doing what is distinctly human and what adds most to the diversified spectacle of nature. I would not abate this view even if it should prove, as much of modern physics seems to suggest, that the depths of space and the 'dark and backward abysm of time' were only coefficients in the mathematician's equation. For in that case man becomes even more remarkable as the inventor of the starry heavens and the ages of cosmic antiquity: what he loses in knowledge he gains in imagination." (p. 81; Russell quote referenced as Education and the Modern World, p. 11)

" . . . he seems welded to Lady John's admonition: 'Thou shalt not follow a multitude to do evil.'" (p. 82) [Comment: this is a quote from the Bible.]

Unpopular Essays
"Philosophy, in this historically usual sense, has resulted from the attempt to produce a synthesis of science and religion, or, perhaps more exactly, to combine a doctrine as to the nature of the universe and man's place in it with a practical ethic inculcating what was considered the best way of life. Philosophy was distinguished from religion by the fact that, nominally at least, it did not appeal to authority or tradition; it was distinguished from science by the fact that an essential part of its purpose was to tell men how to live. Its cosmological and ethical theories were closely interconnected: sometimes ethical motives influenced the philosopher's views as to the nature of the universe, sometimes his views as to the universe led him to ethical conclusions. And with most philosophers ethical opinions involved political consequences: some valued democracy, others oligarchy; some praised liberty, others discipline. Almost all types of philosophy were invented by the Greeks, and the controversies of our own day were already vigorous among the pre-Socratics." ("Philosophy and Politics," p. 3)

"Metaphysics, according to F. H. Bradley, 'is the finding of bad reasons for what we believe upon instinct.' . . . . When he was serious he was sophistical, and a typical philosopher; when he jested, he had insight and uttered unphilosophical truth.

"Philosophy has been defined as 'an unusually obstinate attempt to think clearly'; I should define it rather as 'an unusually ingenious attempt to think fallaciously.' The philosopher's temperament is rare, because it has to combine two somewhat conflicting characteristics: one the one hand a strong desire to believe some general proposition about the universe or human life; on the other hand, inability to believe contentedly except on what appear to be intellectual grounds. The more profound the philosopher, the more intricate and subtle must his fallacies be in order to produce in him the desired state of intellectual acquiescence. That is why philosophy is obscure." ("Philosophy's Ulterior Motives," p. 45-46)

"In a man whose reasoning powers are good, fallacious arguments are evidence of bias." (Ibid, p. 47)

"When you think you see a tree, Berkeley points out that what you really know is not an external object, but a modification of yourself, a sensation, or, as he calls it, an 'idea.' This, which is all that you directly know, ceases if you shut your eyes. Whatever you can perceive is in your mind, not an external material object. Matter, therefore, is an unnecessary hypothesis. What is real about the tree is the perceptions of those who are supposed to 'see' it; the rest is a piece of unnecessary metaphysics.

". . . his most modern disciples have . . . made no advance whatever upon him. None can bear to admit that if I know only 'ideas' it is only my ideas that I know, and therefore I can have no reason to believe in the existence of anything except my own mental states." (Ibid, p. 49-50)

"Philosophy is a stage in intellectual development, and is not compatible with mental maturity. In order that it may flourish, traditional doctrines must still be believed, but not so unquestioningly that arguments in support of them are never sought; there must also be a belief that important truths can be discovered by merely thinking, without the aid of observation. This belief is true in pure mathematics, which has inspired many of the great philosophers. It is true in mathematics because that study is essentially verbal; it is not true elsewhere, because thought alone cannot establish any non-verbal fact. Savages and barbarians believe in a magical connection between persons and their names, which makes it dangerous to let an enemy know what they are called. The distinction between words and what they designate is one which it is difficult always to remember; metaphysicians, like savages, are apt to imagine a magical connection between words and things, or at any rate between syntax and world structure. Sentences have subjects and predicates, therefore the world consists of substances with attributes. Until very recently this argument was accepted as valid by almost all philosophers; or rather, it controlled their opinions almost without their own knowledge." (Ibid, p. 55-56)

"Capacity to believe that the 'laws of thought' have comforting political consequences is a mark of the philosophic bias." (Ibid, p. 56)

"Every serious worker, whether artist, philosopher, or astronomer, believed that in following his own convictions he was serving God's purposes. When with the progress of enlightenment this belief began to grow dim, there still remained the True, the Good, and the Beautiful. Non-human standards were still laid up in heaven, even if heaven had no topographical existence.

"Throughout the nineteenth century the True, the Good, and the Beautiful preserved their precarious existence in the minds of earnest atheists. But their very earnestness was their undoing, since it made it impossible for them to stop at a half-way house. Pragmatists explained that Truth is what it pays to believe. Historians of morals reduced the Good to a matter of tribal custom. Beauty was abolished by the artists in a revolt against the sugary insipidities of a philistine epoch and in a mood of fury in which satisfaction is to be derived only from what hurts. And so the world was swept clear not only of God as a person but of God's essence as an ideal to which man owed an ideal allegiance; while the individual, as a result of crude and uncritical interpretation of sound doctrines, was left without any inner defense against social pressure." ("On Being Modern-Minded," p. 68-69)

"As soon as we abandon our own reason, and are content to rely upon authority, there is no end to our troubles. Whose authority? The Old Testament? The New Testament? The Koran? In practice, people choose the book considered sacred by the community in which they are born, and out of that book they choose the parts they like, ignoring the others. At one time, the most influential text in the Bible was: 'Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.' Nowadays, people pass over this text, in silence if possible; if not, with an apology. And so, even when we have a sacred book, we still choose as truth whatever suits our own prejudices." ("An Outline of Intellectual Rubbish," p. 81-82)

"In our more highly organized world we face a new problem. Something called education is given to everybody, usually by the state, but sometimes by the churches. The teacher has thus become, in the vast majority of cases, a civil servant obliged to carry out the behests of men who have not his learning, who have no experience of dealing with the young, and whose only attitude towards education is that of the propagandist. It is not very easy to see how, in these circumstances, teachers can perform the functions for which they are specially fitted." ("The Functions of a Teacher," p. 113)

"Teachers are more than any other class the guardians of civilization. They should be intimately aware of what civilization is, and desirous of imparting a civilized attitude to their pupils. We are thus brought to the question: what constitutes a civilized community?

". . . . Civilization . . . is a thing of the mind, not of material adjuncts to the physical side of living. It is a matter partly of knowledge, partly of emotion. So far as knowledge is concerned, a man should be aware of the minuteness of himself and his immediate environment in relation to the world in time and space. He should see his own country not only as home, but as one among the countries of the world, all with an equal right to live and think and feel. He should see his own age in relation to the past and the future, and be aware that its own controversies will seem as strange to future ages as those of the past seem to us now. Taking an even wider view, he should be conscious of the vastness of geological epochs and astronomical abysses; but he should be aware of all this, not as a weight to crush the individual human spirit, but as a vast panorama which enlarges the mind that contemplates it. On the side of the emotions, a very similar enlargement from the purely personal is needed if a man is to be truly civilized. Men pass from birth to death, sometimes happy, sometimes unhappy; sometimes generous, sometimes grasping and petty; sometimes heroic, sometimes cowardly and servile. To the man who views the procession as a whole, certain things stand out as worthy of admiration. Some men have been inspired by love of mankind; some by supreme intellect have helped us to understand the world in which we live; and some by exceptional sensitiveness have created beauty. These men have produced something of positive good to outweigh the long record of cruelty, oppression, and superstition. These men have done what lay in their power to make human life a better thing than the brief turbulence of savages. The civilized man, where he cannot admire, will aim rather at understanding than at reprobating. He will seek to discover and remove the impersonal causes of evil than to hate the men who are in its grip. All this should be in the heart and mind of the teacher, and if it is his mind and heart he will convey it in his teaching to the young who are in his care." (Ibid, p. 117-118)

"There is . . . a great deal more social science than politicians are willing or able to apply. Some people attribute this failure to democracy, but it seems to me to be more marked in autocracy than anywhere else. Belief in democracy, like any other belief, may be carried to the point where it becomes fanatical, and therefore harmful. A democrat need not believe that the majority will always decide wisely; what he must believe is that the decision of the majority, whether wise or unwise, must be accepted until such time as the majority decides otherwise. And this he believes not from any mystic conception of the wisdom of the plain man, but as the best practical device for putting the reign of law in place of the reign of arbitrary force." ("Ideas that Have Harmed Mankind," p. 164)

"The world at the present day stands in need of two kinds of things. On the one hand, organization--political organization for the elimination of wars, economic organization to enable men to work productively . . . , educational organization to generate a sane internationalism. On the other hand it needs certain moral qualities--the qualities which have been advocated by moralists for many ages, but hitherto with little success. The qualities most needed are charity and tolerance, not some form of fanatical faith as is offered to us by the various rampant isms. I think these two aims, the organizational and the ethical, are closely interwoven; given either the other would soon follow. But, in effect, if the world is to move in the right direction it will have to move simultaneously in both respects . . . . There will have to be a realization at once intellectual and moral that we are all one family, and that the happiness of no one branch of this family can be built securely upon the ruin of another. At the present time, moral defects stand in the way of clear thinking, and muddled thinking encourages moral defects." (Ibid, p. 165)

The Analysis of Mind
". . . thinking . . . is in itself a delightful occupation, and . . . there is no enemy to thinking so deadly as a false simplicity. Travelling, whether in the mental or the physical world, is a joy, and it is good to know that, in the mental world at least, there are vast countries still very imperfectly explored." (p. 16-17)

". . . desire, like force in mechanics, is of the nature of a convenient fiction for describing shortly certain laws of behaviour." (p. 32) We have many convenient fictions, such as electrons, society, "our culture," the conscious mind--almost anything can be profitably looked at with the idea of determining how fictional it really is.

"If, as we maintain, mind and matter are neither of them the actual stuff of reality, but different convenient groupings of an underlying material, then, clearly, the question whether, in regard to a given phenomenon, we are to seek a physical or a mental cause, is merely one to be decided by trial." (p. 35)

"I believe an 'unconscious' desire is merely a causal law of our behaviour, namely, that we remain restlessly active until a certain state of affairs is realized, when we achieve temporary equilibrium. If we know beforehand what this state of affairs is, our desire is conscious; if not, unconscious. The unconscious desire is not something actually existing, but merely a tendency to a certain behaviour; it has exactly the same status as a force in dynamics. The unconscious desire is in no way mysterious; it is the natural primitive form of desire, from which the other has developed through our habit of observing and theorizing (often wrongly). It is not necessary to suppose, as Freud seems to do, that every unconscious wish was once conscious, and was then, in his terminology, 'repressed' because we disapproved of it. on the contrary, we shall suppose that, although Freudian 'repression' undoubtedly occurs and is important, it is not the usual reason for unconsciousness of our wishes. The usual reason is merely that wishes are all, to begin with, unconscious, and only become known when they are actively noticed." (p. 38-39)

Quoting John B. Watson: "Many of us do not believe in a world of the unconscious . . . hence we try to explain censorship along ordinary biological lines. We believe that one group of habits can 'cut down' another group of habits--or instincts. In this case our ordinary system of habits--those which we call expressive of our 'real selves'--inhibit or quench (keep inactive or partially inactive) those habits and instinctive tendencies which belong largely to the past." (p. 39; attributed to 'The Psychology of Wish Fulfillment,' The Scientific Monthly, November, 1916)

"When we believe that we desire a certain state of affairs, that often tends to cause a real desire for it . . . . Thus what was originally a false opinion as to the object of a desire acquires a certain truth: the false opinion generates a secondary subsidiary desire, which nevertheless becomes real . . . ."

". . . . A secondary desire, derived from a false judgment as to a primary desire, has its own power of influencing action, and is therefore a real desire according to our definition. But it has not the same power as a primary desire of bringing thorough satisfaction when it is realized; so long as the primary desire remains unsatisfied, restlessness continues in spite of the secondary desire's success. Hence arises a belief in the vanity of human wishes: the vain wishes are those that are secondary, but mistaken beliefs prevent us from realizing that they are secondary." (p. 72-74)

The Problems of Philosophy, Oxford University Press, London, 1912
"The value of philosophy is . . . to be sought largely in its very uncertainty. 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. To such a man teh world tends to become definite, finite, obvious; common objects rouse no questions, and unfamiliar possibilities are contemptuously rejected. As soon as we begin to philosophize, on the contrary, we find . . . that even the most everyday things lead to problems to which only very incomplete answers can be given. 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.

"Apart from its utility in showing unsuspected possibilities, philosophy has a value---perhaps its chief value---through the greatness of the objects which it contemplates, and the freedom from narrow and personal aims resulting from this contemplation. The life of the instinctive man is shut up within the circle of his private interests: family and friends may be included, but the outer world is not regarded except as it may help or hinder what comes within the circle of instinctive wishes. In such a life there is something feverish and confined, in comparison with which the philosophic life is calm and free. The private world of instinctive interests is a small one, set in the midst of a great and powerful world which must, sooner or later, lay our private world in ruins. Unless we can so enlarge our interests as to include the whole outer world, we remain like a garrison in a beleagured fortress, knowing that the enemy prevents escape and that ultimate surrender is inevitable. In such a life there is no peace, but a constant strife between the insistence of desire and the powerlessness of will. In one way or another, if our life is to be great and free, we must escape this prison and this strife.

"One way of escape is by philosophic contemplation. Philosophic contemplation does not, in its widest survey, divide the universe into two hostile camps---friends and foes, helpful and hostile, good and bad---it views the whole impartially. Philosophic contemplation, when it is unalloyed, does not aim and proving that the rest of the universe is akin to man. All acquisition of knowledge is an enlargement of the Self, but this enlargement is best attained when it is not directly sought. It is obtained when the desire for knowledge is alone operative, by a study which does not wish in advance that its objects should have this or that character, but adapts the Self to the characters which it finds in its objects. This enlargement of Self is not obtained when, taking the Self as it is, we try to show that the world is so similar to this Self that knowledge of it is possible without any admission of what seems alien. The desire to prove this is a form of self-assertion, and, like all self-assertion, it is an obstacle to the growth of Self which it desires, and of which the Self knows that it is capable. Self-assertion, in philosophic speculation as elsewhere, views the world as a means to its own ends; thus it makes the world of less account than the Self, and the Self sets bounds to the greatness of its goods. In contemplation, on the contrary, we start from the not-Self, and through its greatness the boundaries of Self are enlarged; through the infinity of the universe the mind which contemplates it achieves some share in infinity." p. 157-159

Book review: A brilliant, brief introduction to epistemology. Offers sound reasoning on difficult subjects, and so would be a good introduction to anyone wanting to get into philosophy, though with one caveat: one is liable to say, on finishing it, "that's all very nice, but what does it have to do with me?" That is, there is no consideration of practical questions, such as are the heart of books like Yutang's Importance of Living or Kaufmann's Faith of a Heretic. In other words, it does not deal with questions like, how should I live? This is abstract philosophy of a high order, yet it is very readable and comprehensible. An important book, really a classic. 4/18/01


My email address is: alan_nicoll@yahoo.com

Home