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COMMENTARIES1 A SYMPOSIUM ON BERTRAND RUSSELL'S HISTORY OF WESTERN PHILOSOPHY I INTRODUCTION The material difficulty of the task which faced the contributors to this symposium should be fully realized, since it is meant to summarize and give a critique of an eight hundred and thirty-six page history of philosophy and its connection "with political and social circumstances from the earliest times to the present day." The title, however, is misleading. A history of philosophy should be an objective statement of the doctrines which philosophers have held, and of the arguments advanced in their support. What Russell actually did was to comment on the history of ideas from his own point of view. To analyze this point of view might well be the subject of this introduction , since on it must depend the value of Mr. Russell's book. Bertrand Russell is known especially for his attempt to make the methods of the physical sciences those of philosophy. This is confirmed in his very first pages as he tells us: "All definite knowledge belongs to science; all dogma as to what surpasses definite knowledge belongs to theology." (p. XVII) The question is then posited. Is there definite knowledge and are these truths which surpass definite knowledge? Evidently not, according to Russell, for he further writes: "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 toward the universe." (p. XIV) For Russell, then, theological dogma gives us no knowledge whatsoever. According to him, only science does. Russell, however, does not fall into what has been called scientism: such a faith in science includes the belief that it can provide us with an ethics: "Is there a way of living that is noble and another that is base, or are all ways of living merely futile? If there is a way of living that is noble, in what does it consist, and how shall we achieve it? . . . To such questions no answer can be found in the laboratory." (pp. XIH-XIV) If, as Russell would suppose, theology is a delusion, and science cannot give us the answer to the questions that most concern us, what hope do we have of discovering their answers? "The studying of these questions, if not the answering of them," — and Russell adds such other questions as those of the existence and nature of mind and matter, of the unity and purpose of the universe, of the laws of nature and the nature of man — "is the business of philosophy." (p. XIV) But since, according to Russell, "all definite knowledge," which means all knowledge, "belongs to science," then to give us knowledge, philosophy must adopt a scientific method. That method for Russell is that of "logical 1. From A HISTORY OF WESTERN PHILOSOPHY by Bertrand Russell by permission of Simon and Schuster, Inc. Copyright, 1945 by Bertrand Russell. 72 COMMENTARIES73 analysis" or "modern analytical empiricism." It cannot only derive pure mathematics from logic, as is set forth in Russell's and Whitehead's Principia Mathematica, but, "by its incorporation of mathematics and its development of a powerful logical technique," it can give "to certain problems definite answers which have the quality of science rather than philosophy." (P- 834) Russell does not claim that this has yet been done, but he holds that it is by such methods that such answers must be sought, that "by these methods many ancient problems are completely soluble" ... if "tackled one at a time," as opposed to "inventing at one^stroke a block theory of the whole universe." (p. 834) However, he admits, even a philosophy using scientific methods cannot solve ethical questions: "the ultimate question of value, a vast field traditionally included in philosophy. Science alone, for example, cannot prove that it is bad to enjoy the infliction of cruelty." Such questions for Russell must remain "matters of feeling": "Whatever can be known can be known by means of science; but things which are legitimately matters of feeling lie outside its province." (p. 834) As a consequence, for Russell, there can be no knowledge save scientific knowledge. Theology, based on revelation or tradition, can give...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1945-9718
Print ISSN
0080-5459
Pages
pp. 72-78
Launched on MUSE
2015-07-01
Open Access
No
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