Note on Russell’s “Value of Philosophy”

We humans are very prone to suffer from a psychological predicament we might call “the security blanket paradox.” We know the world is full of hazards and like passengers after a shipwreck we tend to latch on to something for a sense of safety. We might cling to a possession, another person, our cherished beliefs, or any combination of these. The American pragmatist philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce speaks of doubt and uncertainty as uncomfortable anxiety-producing states. This would help explain why we tend to cling, even desperately, to beliefs we find comforting. This clinging strategy, however, leads us into a predicament that becomes clear once we notice that having a security blanket just gives us one more thing to worry about. In addition to worrying about our own safety, we now also have to worry about our security blanket getting lost or damaged. The asset becomes a liability. The clinging strategy for dealing with uncertainty and fear becomes counterproductive.

While not calling it by this name, Russell describes the intellectual consequences of the security blanket paradox vividly:

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 cooperation or consent of his deliberate reason. . . The life of the instinctive man is shut up within the circle of his private interests. . . 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.

The primary value of philosophy according to Russell is that it loosens the grip of uncritically held opinion and opens the mind to a liberating range of new possibilities to explore..

The value of philosophy is, in fact, to be sought largely in its very uncertainty. . . 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 traveled into the region of liberating doubt, and it keeps alive our sense of wonder by showing familiar things in an unfamiliar aspect.

Here we are faced with a stark choice between the feeling of safety we might derive from clinging to opinions we are accustomed to and the liberation that comes with loosening our grip on these in order to explore new ideas. The paradox of the security blanket should make it clear what choice we should consider rational. Russell, of course, compellingly affirms choosing the liberty of free and open inquiry.

Must we remain forever uncertain about philosophical matters? Russell does hold that some philosophical questions appear to be unanswerable (at least by us). But he doesn’t say this about every philosophical issue. In fact, he gives credit to philosophical successes for the birth of various branches of the sciences. Many of the philosophical questions we care most deeply about, however – like whether our lives are significant, whether there is objective value that transcends our subjective interests – sometimes seem to be unsolvable and so remain perennial philosophical concerns. But we shouldn’t be too certain about this either. Russell is hardly the final authority on what in philosophy is or isn’t resolvable. Keep in mind that Russell was writing 100 years ago and a lot has happened in philosophy in the mean time (not in small part thanks to Russell’s own definitive contributions). Problems that looked unsolvable to the best experts a hundred years ago often look quite solvable by current experts. The sciences are no different in this regard. The structure of DNA would not have been considered knowable fairly recently. That there was such a structure to discover could not even have been conceivable prior to Mendel and Darwin (and here we are only talking 150 years ago).

Further, it is often possible to make real progress in understanding issues even when they can’t be definitively settled. We can often rule out many potential answers to philosophical questions even when we can’t narrow things down to a single correct answer. And we can learn a great deal about the implications of and challenges for the possible answers that remain.

Suppose we can’t settle some philosophical issue. Does that tell us that there is not right answer? No. That is not to say that every issue has a right answer. There is no answer to the issue of whether chocolate is better than vanilla, for instance. But when we can’t settle an issue this often just tells us something about our own limitations. There may still be a specific right answer; we just can’t tell conclusively what it is. It’s easy to appreciate this point with a non-philosophical issue. Perhaps we can’t know whether or not there is intelligent life on other planets. But surely there is or there isn’t intelligent life on other planets. This question obviously has a right answer, we just haven’t been able to figure out which it is. Similarly, we may never establish whether or not humans have free will, but, at least once we are clear about what we mean by “free will”, there must be some fact of the matter. It would be intellectually arrogant of us to think that a question has no right answer just because we aren’t able to figure out what that answer is.

Student Comments on Russell’s “Value of Philosophy”

As Bertrand Russell believes, critical thinking of unanswerable (by us) questions can open our minds to more numerous ideas rather than accepting whatever society pushes onto us, avoiding becoming drones to the whims of whoever arbitrarily determines what stuff is. But, we aren’t the only ones who will ponder these questions. Breakthroughs by someone analyzing issues that seemingly can’t have definitive knowledge could assist some future philosopher to find the next psychology, astronomy, neuroscience, etc. At least that is my ramble on the question, feel free to correct me if anything seemed incoherent.

I agree very much with Bertrand Russell in the reading. I think that broadly, philosophy addresses questions that many people take for granted or dismiss as superfluous. Concepts such as the meaning of life, the source of morals, and the definition of beauty are all concepts that we incorporate in our lives extensively—from thinking about our futures, to judging actions, to criticizing a painting. Yet, many of us take these concepts for granted and never really examine what actually makes them.

Russell Bertrand points out in his chapter “What is the value of Philosophy?” that philosophy enriches the lives of the individual through freeing the mind from confined thought, and by shifting the focus off oneself and instead onto the world around them. Bertrand also suggests that the “instinctive man” who does not study philosophy will sooner or later have his worldview shattered, due to clinging on to comforting beliefs that reduce the anxious state of doubt. One simply cannont be right all the time about everything; therefore, we cannot possibly expect all our personal beliefs on the world to be correct. Exploring alternative answers to questions gives a more secure view of the world around us, because if we know all the possibilites our worlds cannot be shattered. 

In Russell’s “The Value of Philosophy” we are given explanations that philosophy is not to seek the right answers, but rather to expand our thoughts on the questions we want answers to. To me this also means that the answer may not always be found and that is something to be comfortable with. I find it to be selfish is we are always want a complete answer to things that simply cannot and maybe will not be acquired.

The purpose that philosophy has for me is to help me have an open mind and learn to accept that what I believe will be different to others in the different controversial topics that will emerge in life. 

Well according to Russell, the aim of philosophy isn’t to find definitive answers but to ask the questions. Philosophy sparks the curiosity of how that answer came to be and even the question itself. And in doing so, expands and feeds the brain like food to the body. That’s where philosophy holds its value, if nobody debates the answers and questions, then we would be stuck not knowing if the answers and questions are the right or wrong questions and IF there is even a right or wrong. 

From what I gathered from Russells paper is the aim is to not cling to any one idea as the answer to everything and do not close an idea just because obtainable evidence proves that the idea is wrong. Keep an open mind and explore idea’s whether they seem logically provable or not. Understand that we do not have the answers to everything. By accepting this will we begin to gain knowledge and pursue ideas outside of the confines of matter of fact issues.  

Russell goes onto say that philosophy should aim to open our minds up to possibilities. That we become so closed up with our beliefs and ways, and we fall into this paradox called a “security blanket.” Philosophy should allow us to be willing to consider new ideas, and we will have decide to use what makes us “secure” and what people believe they know, to find an answer. It makes our choices clear. And although not all philosophical questions are answerable, we must become unprejudiced to full understand these questions. I am curious on when we define a question to be unanswerable? Many people have answers to these questions…so when do we know to choose the right one, and how will we know its actually correct?

From what I understood, Russell see’s the value of philosophy by opening up the door of reason. Philosophy supported my ones belief or assumptions may lead to some evidence which would be some kind of scientific findings, but without the concrete evidence, it’s all philosophical. Philosophy leads to studies of questions through careful analyzing but with no real answer. Thus leading to the limitations on your mind and in a sense a common ground to agree to disagree. It’s all in a sense of gaining more knowledge.

Russell explains that knowledge is possible through philosophy, and through philosophy a lot can be discovered. It’s not always about having scientific evidence to support your belief but it’s about having a higher level of understanding of what you believe or a new avenue of thinking towards your belief. Russell explains that it’s the outcome or your interactions with someone through your belief is where the value comes in. In a way, it creates an identity of who you are because you are acting upon your knowledge and understanding. Thus leads to a higher value because it’s coming from a personal and heart felt place. Now if someone challenges you on that, it leads to contemplations which forces you to enlarge your imagination and think outside of the box, which then leads to more knowledge which is better for everyone.

After reading this, I believe that Russell views philosophy as an important way of thinking that one must use to address any beliefs, issues and/or ideas. Philosophy is taking possible answers into question. It is to question if a claim is true and to determine why it is or isn’t true. Philosophy questions the way all things are and how they work. All claims need evidence to be true or untrue. I also believe that with questioning claims comes confusion. Claims can be either “relative to meaning or open to interpretation.” The arguments and questioning don’t have any meaning but to get knowledge from investigating a claim and to or to not find evidence to back up the claim. The point is to come to a conclusion. To provide validity and confidence when supporting a claim is ideally an important goal.

From my understanding of the text, Russell’s value of philosophy comes from rational and critical thinking through the state of an open mind. Bertrand Russell aims philosophy primarily on knowledge and complete understanding of our selves as well as the rest of the world. The process in which he describes philosophy is through the logistics of one’s expression of opinions through solidified evidence. Philosophy is obtaining more knowledge through thorough examination of the purpose of our convictions reason to formulate a discussion with our minds in a rational way. Russell explains that philosophy opens our minds to more thoughtful observation and clear reasoning. When we allow ourselves to be set apart from dogmatic beliefs and prejudice judgement, we open our minds to new possibilities and better relations with people because of a different level of knowledge that sustains our minds to be more rational and understanding. By examining the way we think and challenging it with a different conception of knowledge we are unlocking the true greatness of life. The values of philosophy are the desire for the truth in a way that is ethical, factual and just.

Russell writes about the value of philosophy being found in the goods of the mind and only those that are apathetic can be persuaded that the study isn’t a waste of time. He talks about how philosophy is to be studied, not to find the definite answers but for the questions themselves. Since this process expands our perception or our image of the ideas being researched, our intellect and imagination is enriched and unproved opinions are diminished. It appears that Russell believed that when we connect with the universe it creates a union and that greatness is the result, manifesting the highest good; therefore the most important value of philosophy, according to Russell. 

From reading the text, I understood that Russell believes philosophy is a beginning to reasoning. Philosophy would be the initial action of critical thinking, but with clearly disregarding any proclaimed truths, customs, or natures of life we might currently perceive to be true. In terms of value, it affects every idea behind our being. Every time you ask why, and cannot find a reason within our social norms or immediate logic, you use philosophy to look past what might be a “reasonable” or “logical” answer and find truth or an idea bigger than what was previously believe. 

To me, it seems that Russell values philosophy for keeping the sense of wonder alive and differentiating philosophically inclined thinker away from the “practical” man. He goes on two sum up that philosophy is not used for getting definitive answers, infact hes goes on to say how it rarely provides you with definitive answers, but for the sake of enriching our intellectual imagination which Russell seems to find more valuable than finding real definitive answers to questions.

Based on the reading, I believe Russell see’s philosophy as the building blocks for reasoning. By asking philosophical questions and wondering about the existence of things, morality, ethics, so on and so forth… You begin the process of discovery. However, once physical evidence is found to support any large claims like these, it then branches out into a scientific category, finding more evidence until that question becomes a fact to society supported by science. Why Philosophy differs from science, is there are no definitive answers, it is the curiosity which drives the need to find a definitive answer and to gain knowledge overall. The way I understood it to be is that Philosphy is not about having exact evidence to support your beliefs, but to achieve the highest level of understanding and to analyze every situation in critical ways from all different angles. 

Based on my understanding of the text, Russell sees the value of philosophy as the perpetual and exponential exploration of human inquiry. It is the practice of opening the door of reason and reaching beyond one’s first and personal reactions/opinions and exploring an infinite number of discoveries. Philosophy is, I believe, the only branch of study in which a concrete answer is not desirable and by asking one question, five more questions present themselves, and five more after that. It is the only branch wherein finding an actual concrete answer is not necessarily desirable nor possible. I also infer from Russell’s writing that he believes philosophy to be a tool that can be used for a pattern of logical thought – examining all situations from all angles is simply a tool for day to day problem solving.

People are prone to hang onto ideas or things that they find comforting. This can be beneficial, since by name it provides a sense of security. However the problem is that clinging to a belief simply because of the familiarity creates ignorance. Russell states that a man who lives a life “imprisoned in the prejudices derived from common sense” sees the world as “definite, finite, obvious”. Those lines and the rest of the seventh paragraph really sum up the value of philosophy in my opinion. Philosophy allows us to see and understand different ways of thinking and removes us from the standard customs. Philosophy is intended to remove that security blanket. In doing so, we “diminish our feeling of certainty as to what things are” and we “greatly increase our knowledge as to what they may be”. While I thought the rest of the paper made great points, I found that this section most clearly and accurately showed the value in philosophy.

Leave a Reply