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.