Bertrand Russell was one of the most influential and well known philosophers of the twentieth century, as well as a vocal political campaigner. His work, “The Problems of Philosophy”, marked a significant change in Russell’s approach to philosophy, as he began to write books aimed at lay readers, and not just a minority in academia.
Born on 18th May 1872 in Monmouthshire, Wales, Russell came from a wealthy, noble family. His grandfather, Lord John Russell, was the youngest son of the Duke of Bedford. Lord Russell enjoyed a long and distinguished political career. including two stints as prime minister, as well as being enobled by Queen Victoria; becoming Earl Russell in 1861.
By the time Bertrand Russell was six, his life had been devastated by tragedy; his parents Lord and Lady Amberley, along with his sister and grandfather, had all passed away. Along with his brother Frank, Russell was left in the care of his grandmother. Russell was home schooled, isolating him from other children, but allowing his tutors to foster his natural intellect and fascination with mathematics. This isolation continued until his enrollment in Trinity College Cambridge to study mathematics.
Prior to the publication of ‘The Problems of Philosophy’, Russell wrote several works on the connections between logic and mathematical principles. He argued, most directly in his ‘The Principles of Mathematics’, that mathematics was more than just founded on logical principles, it was in fact made up of nothing but logic. He postulated that rather than being constructed from specifically mathematical ideas, the theories and systems of mathematics could be explained through models such as class and proposition. Through this conception of mathematics, the discipline could be freed from any element of subjectivity and be considered completely objective.
Russell had also begun to refine the philosophical reasoning that would come to define his work and his enduring influence on a host of later philosophers. The nineteenth century had seen a growing focus on synthesis based philosophy, that is, ideas that attempted to collect data and information into grand explanatory narratives, the most obvious example being the work of Karl Marx. Russell took an analytic approach, arguing that all reality could be analysed through concepts and prepositions instead of language.
The Problems of Philosophy signaled Russell adopting a new approach to his writing, and a much more accessible style. It was something he would return to throughout his career, realising he had a talent for explaining complex philosophical and logical concepts to lay readers.
Engaging with the ways reality is perceived, the book is a critical appreciation of British empiricist thinkers such as David Hume. Russell explains that knowledge from experience is directly connected to sense data. The book questions the manner in which we engage with the physical world, and the process by which both beliefs and information are formed. The book’s greatest strength is its ability to act as an introduction to analytic philosophy, through easily understood explanations and summaries of Russell’s predecessors in the field. At the same time, it is much more than just a text book, making its own valuable contribution to the study of philosophy.
Russell of course had a long and eventful career. Alongside his philosophy and logic works he also wrote political and social commentaries. He was an avid campaigner on a variety of issues, to the extent that he spent a period of time in prison for criticising the First World War, and was banned from Cambridge University for several years. ‘The Problems of Philosophy’ gives a good insight into some of the fundamental principles he developed throughout his life. It also exposes his uniquely approachable style, one that has ensured his enduring relevance, and been influential to a host of academics in a variety of disciplines who have attempted to create works relevant to lay readers.
The Problems of Philosophy
by Bertrand Russell