Bertrand Russell: The Everyday Benefit of Philosophy Is That It Helps You Live with Uncertainty

On the strength of a few quo­ta­tions and the pop­u­lar lec­ture Why I am Not a Chris­t­ian, philoso­pher Bertrand Rus­sell has been char­ac­ter­ized as a so-called “pos­i­tive athe­ist,” a phrase that implies a high degree of cer­tain­ty. While it is true that Rus­sell saw “no rea­son to believe any of the dog­mas of tra­di­tion­al the­ol­o­gy” — he saw them, in fact, as pos­i­tive­ly harm­ful — it would be mis­lead­ing to sug­gest that he reject­ed all forms of meta­physics, mys­ti­cism, and imag­i­na­tive, even poet­ic, spec­u­la­tion.

Rus­sell saw a way to great­ness in the search for ulti­mate truth, by means of both hard sci­ence and pure spec­u­la­tion. In an essay enti­tled “Mys­ti­cism and Log­ic,” for exam­ple, Rus­sell con­trasts two “great men,” Enlight­en­ment philoso­pher David Hume, whose “sci­en­tif­ic impulse reigns quite unchecked,” and poet William Blake, in whom “a strong hos­til­i­ty to sci­ence co-exists with pro­found mys­tic insight.”

It’s inter­est­ing that Rus­sell choos­es Blake for an exam­ple. One of his oft-quot­ed apho­risms cribs a line from anoth­er mys­ti­cal poet, William But­ler Yeats, who wrote in “The Sec­ond Com­ing” (1920), “The best lack all con­vic­tion, while the worst / Are full of pas­sion­ate inten­si­ty.” Russell’s ver­sion of this, from his 1933 essay “The Tri­umph of Stu­pid­i­ty,” is a bit clunki­er rhetor­i­cal­ly speak­ing:

“The fun­da­men­tal cause of the trou­ble is that in the mod­ern world the stu­pid are cock­sure while the intel­li­gent are full of doubt.”

The quote has been sig­nif­i­cant­ly altered and stream­lined over time, it seems, yet it still serves as a kind of mot­to for the skep­ti­cal phi­los­o­phy Rus­sell advo­cat­ed, one he would par­tial­ly define in the 1960 inter­view above as a way to “keep us mod­est­ly aware of how much that seems like knowl­edge isn’t knowl­edge.” On the oth­er hand, phi­los­o­phy push­es ret­i­cent intel­lec­tu­als to “enlarge” their “imag­i­na­tive purview of the world into the hypo­thet­i­cal realm,” allow­ing “spec­u­la­tions about mat­ters where exact knowl­edge is not pos­si­ble.”

Where the quo­ta­tion above seems to pose an insol­u­ble problem—similar to the cog­ni­tive bias known as the “Dun­ning-Kruger Effect”—it seems in Russell’s esti­ma­tion a false dilem­ma. At the 9:15 mark, in answer to a direct ques­tion posed by inter­view­er Woodrow Wyatt about the “prac­ti­cal use of your sort of phi­los­o­phy to a man who wants to know how to con­duct him­self,” Rus­sell replies:

I think nobody should be cer­tain of any­thing. If you’re cer­tain, you’re cer­tain­ly wrong because noth­ing deserves cer­tain­ty. So one ought to hold all one’s beliefs with a cer­tain ele­ment of doubt, and one ought to be able to act vig­or­ous­ly in spite of the doubt…. One has in prac­ti­cal life to act upon prob­a­bil­i­ties, and what I should look to phi­los­o­phy to do is to encour­age peo­ple to act with vig­or with­out com­plete cer­tain­ty.

Russell’s dis­cus­sion of the uses of phi­los­o­phy puts me in mind of anoth­er con­cept devised by a poet: John Keats’ “neg­a­tive capa­bil­i­ty,” or what Maria Popo­va calls “the art of remain­ing in doubt…. The will­ing­ness to embrace uncer­tain­ty, live with mys­tery, and make peace with ambi­gu­i­ty.” Per­haps Rus­sell would not char­ac­ter­ize it this way. He was, as you’ll see above, not much giv­en to poet­ic exam­ples. And indeed, Russell’s method relies a great deal more on log­ic and prob­a­bil­i­ty the­o­ry than Keats’. And yet the prin­ci­ple is strik­ing­ly sim­i­lar.

For Rus­sell, cer­tain­ty sti­fles progress, and an inabil­i­ty to take imag­i­na­tive risks con­signs us to inac­tion. A mid­dle way is required to live “vig­or­ous­ly,” that of phi­los­o­phy, which requires both the math­e­mat­ic and the poet­ic. In “Mys­ti­cism and Log­ic,” Rus­sell sums up his posi­tion suc­cinct­ly: “The great­est men who have been philoso­phers have felt the need of sci­ence and of mys­ti­cism: the attempt to har­monise the two was what made their life, and what always must, for all its ardu­ous uncer­tain­ty, make phi­los­o­phy, to some minds, a greater thing than either sci­ence or reli­gion.”

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Note: An ear­li­er ver­sion of this post appeared on our site in 2015.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

What If We’re Wrong?: An Ani­mat­ed Video Chal­lenges Our Most Deeply Held Beliefs–With the Help of a Lud­wig Wittgen­stein Thought Exper­i­ment

Bertrand Russell’s Mes­sage to Peo­ple Liv­ing in the Year 2959: “Love is Wise, Hatred is Fool­ish”

Noam Chom­sky Defines The Real Respon­si­bil­i­ty of Intel­lec­tu­als: “To Speak the Truth and to Expose Lies” (1967)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (10)
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  • Peter says:

    Bertrand Rus­sel­l’s life and work are SUCH an inspi­ra­tion!

  • Santosh Man Maskey says:


  • Tom More says:

    I find the quote laugh­able as a phi­los­o­phy major. His famous dis­as­trous debate with the bril­liant Coplel­stone on BBC and avail­able online found him deny­ing the uni­verse.

    He could­n’t even get the first line of the cos­mo­log­i­cal argu­ment right which is still repeat­ed as nau­se­um by his fans, and in anoth­er flake flight he denied the exis­tence of both Napoleon and .. Bertrand Rus­sell. Phi­los­o­phy should at least aim at san­i­ty.

  • Dr. Geethanjali Bhas says:

    Uncer­tain­ty: Think­ing about it and liv­ing with and through it , is per­haps the most impor­tant biopsy­choso­cial chal­lenge of our times and all times.

    Hence , it is best explored as a realm of inter­con­nec­tions: of sci­ence, art and phi­los­o­phy.

    Like a kalei­do­scope, every thinker, ancient,medieval and mod­ern forms a point in a pat­tern, which we can explore in the con­text of our cur­rent oppor­tu­ni­ties, chal­lenges and trans­for­ma­tions.

    One need not agree or dis­agree with a philo­soph­i­cal view, but can always explore its enrich­ing enquiries, its strengths and its flaws.

    So, yes Bertrand Rus­sell and Keats and the ancient Upan­ishadic philosophers,poets and every­one who gazed and pon­dered on the won­drous dimen­sions of life, are all there for us, like con­stel­la­tions , telling their sto­ry of what it is to be an awe­some yet ephemer­al being, some­where on the plan­et.

  • Who cares says:

    Well this was a giant waste of time. Con­tent that no one is read­ing and no one is com­ment­ing on. Bor­ing. Influ­encer cul­ture is des­tined to fail as are gurus. No one’s lis­ten­ing to these blowhards and no one is using the word purview but intel­lects

  • Get your ebook now says:

    No one cares for ebooks and no one is read­ing them and only stu­pid peo­ple are writ­ing them. Peo­ple that like the sound of their own voice and think that their opin­ions mat­ter when in actu­al­i­ty nor­mal humans no how to use their inner guid­ance to dri­ve their own life.

  • Donald MacKerer Jr says:

    I agree he was one of my favorite philoso­phers to read

  • Donald MacKerer Jr says:

    I agree with a lot of what you said and I think it was very well writ­ten

  • Donald MacKerer Jr says:

    SMH. purview is a very use­ful word but evi­dent­ly you’re too lazy to use a dic­tio­nary. you appear to be one of those inse­cure peo­ple that feels the need to put down peo­ple smarter than you which seems to be peo­ple of aver­age intel­li­gence or bet­ter.

  • Donald MacKerer Jr says:

    well there are peo­ple who are buy­ing ebooks so I guess some of the peo­ple who write ebooks are try­ing to make mon­ey .

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