Thursday, 23 March 2017

Bertrand Russell - Author of History of Western Philosophy


It's said of him that he never wrote an ugly sentence in his life!

Bertrand Russell was also a brave supporter of those unable to defend themselves against authority and the ruling dogma of the time, for example, he was committed to helping conscientious objectors and twice was sent to jail for his activism.

"The first war made me feel it just wouldn't do to live in an ivory tower," said Bertrand Russell in an interview conducted on 4 March 1959 by the BBC TV programme Face to Face with John Freeman. 

Academics, Russell said, could not remain cut off from the real world. It was the brutal brush with the realities of the 1914-1918 war that propelled the great man into turning away from traditional philosophy within the confines of academic life, and into becoming an activist and a revolutionary, committing himself wholeheartedly to social reform and politics.
Early Influences
Bertrand Russell was born in 1872 in Monmouthshire in Wales to a wealthy, aristocratic family. He became drawn to philosophy, logic and mathematics, eventually becoming a fellow at Cambridge University. In the programme, Russell talked of what first provided him with the incentive to study mathematics. He named Euclid, known as the "Father of Geometry" and Russell said that this was the "loveliest stuff I had ever seen in my life."
Progression from Academia to Activism
With age, Bertrand Russell had become more radical, said author, Tariq Ali in "The Great Experiment." Finally, abstract thought progressed to direct action and Russell was thrown out of Trinity College, Cambridge during WWI for his pacifist activities and served the first of his two jail sentences. Later, in 1918, he was sent to Brixton Prison for six months for trying to incite the US to enter the war in support of Britain.
During the 1950s, broadcasting made national celebrities out of scholars and provided them with a platform on which to preach their sometimes radical views. Running a good and decent society was uppermost in the minds of many great philosophers, reformers and thinkers such as Bertrand Russell. He campaigned tirelessly for peace and protested how he deplored the thought of nuclear war.
Some telling insights into his character were portrayed on the BBC4 programme of 8 August 2011. Philosopher Roger Scruton pointed out that Russell never wrote an ugly sentence in his life and that for him, the English language was a plastic material that he put to his own use whenever he needed it. A further clip from the 1959 BBC TV programme depicted Russell declaring how he could not bear to think of hundreds of millions of people dying in agony simply because the rulers of the world were stupid and wicked.
The Conflict Between Science and Theology
In the Preface to his History of Western Philosophy, a wonderfully accessible and enlightening overview of the subject, Russell says: "Philosophy, from the earliest times, has been not merely an affair of the schools, or of disputation between a handful of learned men. It has been an integral part of the life of the community, and as such I have tried to consider it." Russell never wavered from that conviction.
Speaking of science in his History of Western Philosophy, Russell says: "Science tells us what we can know, but what we can know is little, and if we forget how much we cannot know we become insensitive to many things of very great importance."
On the other hand: "Theology induces a dogmatic belief that we have knowledge where in fact we have ignorance, and by doing so generates a kind of impertinent insolence towards the universe. Uncertainty, in the presence of vivid hopes and fears, is painful, but must be endured if we wish to live without the support of comforting fairy tales."
Philosophy - a No Man's Land
His aim, as a philosopher, was "to teach how to live without certainty and yet without being paralysed by hesitation." For Russell, philosophy was the "No Man's Land" in between science and theology, and was exposed to attack from both sides.
The great humanitarian, Bertrand Russell. showed us how to try to reconcile these disparities by his own example, as an intellectual, a sensitive, a trailblazer and a true man of the people. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1950 and was a member of the famous Bloomsbury set along with social reformer John Maynard Keynes and Virginia Woolf. He was happily married and credited his wife, Patricia, for supporting him and for assisting him in his research for his History.
Bertrand Russell died on 2 February 1970.

·      Great Thinkers in Their Own Words, "The Great Experiment" BBC 4, 8 August 2011, 21.00pm.
·      Face to Face with John Freeman, BBC Television, 4 March, 1959.
·      History of Western Philosophy, Bertrand Russell, Routledge Classics, 2009, originally published by George Allen & Unwin Ltd. London, 1946.

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