The Problems of Philosophy [NOOK Book]


Immensely intelligible, thought-provoking guide by Nobel prize-winner considers such topics as the distinction between appearance and reality, the existence and nature of matter, idealism, inductive logic, intuitive knowledge, many other subjects. For students and general readers, there is no finer introduction to philosophy than this informative, affordable and highly readable edition.

An intelligible and stimulating guide to those problems of philosophy that he ...

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The Problems of Philosophy

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Immensely intelligible, thought-provoking guide by Nobel prize-winner considers such topics as the distinction between appearance and reality, the existence and nature of matter, idealism, inductive logic, intuitive knowledge, many other subjects. For students and general readers, there is no finer introduction to philosophy than this informative, affordable and highly readable edition.

An intelligible and stimulating guide to those problems of philosophy that he believes will provoke positive and constructive discussion.

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Editorial Reviews

<:st> Cited in . Accenting theory of knowledge issues over metaphysics in this classic, Russell's ability to make philosophy accessible clinches his case for students reading great philosophers' works rather than secondary texts. Originally published by Williams and Norgate. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (
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"Treats its subject in a way that will arouse the interest of any one who has any latent ability to become interested in it."--The New York Times

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780486121161
  • Publisher: Dover Publications
  • Publication date: 4/6/2012
  • Sold by: Barnes & Noble
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 128
  • File size: 559 KB

Meet the Author

Bertrand Arthur William Russell, 3rd Earl Russell, OM, FRS (18 May 1872 - 2 February 1970) was a British philosopher, logician, mathematician, historian, social critic and political activist. At various points in his life he considered himself a liberal, a socialist, and a pacifist, but he also admitted that he had never been any of these in any profound sense. He was born in Monmouthshire, into one of the most prominent aristocratic families in Britain.
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The Problems of Philosophy

By Bertrand Russell


Copyright © 2015 Philosophical Library/Open Road Integrated Media, Inc.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-5040-0070-3



IS THERE ANY KNOWLEDGE in the world which is so certain that no reasonable man could doubt it? This question, which at first sight might not seem difficult, is really one of the most difficult that can be asked. When we have realized the obstacles in the way of a straightforward and confident answer, we shall be well launched on the study of philosophy—for philosophy is merely the attempt to answer such ultimate questions, not carelessly and dogmatically, as we do in ordinary life and even in the sciences, but critically, after exploring all that makes such questions puzzling, and after realizing all the vagueness and confusion that underlie our ordinary ideas.

In daily life, we assume as certain many things which, on a closer scrutiny, are found to be so full of apparent contradictions that only a great amount of thought enables us to know what it is that we really may believe. In the search for certainty, it is natural to begin with our present experiences, and in some sense, no doubt, knowledge is to be derived from them. But any statement as to what it is that our immediate experiences make us know is very likely to be wrong. It seems to me that I am now sitting in a chair, at a table of a certain shape, on which I see sheets of paper with writing or print. By turning my head I see out of the window buildings and clouds and the sun. I believe that the sun is about ninety-three million miles from the earth; that it is a hot globe many times bigger than the earth; that, owing to the earth's rotation, it rises every morning, and will continue to do so for an indefinite time in the future. I believe that, if any other normal person comes into my room, he will see the same chairs and tables and books and papers as I see, and that the table which I see is the same as the table which I feel pressing against my arm. All this seems to be so evident as to be hardly worth stating, except in answer to a man who doubts whether I know anything. Yet all this may be reasonably doubted, and all of it requires much careful discussion before we can be sure that we have stated it in a form that is wholly true.

To make our difficulties plain, let us concentrate attention on the table. To the eye it is oblong, brown and shiny, to the touch it is smooth and cool and hard; when I tap it, it gives out a wooden sound. Any one else who sees and feels and hears the table will agree with this description, so that it might seem as if no difficulty would arise; but as soon as we try to be more precise our troubles begin. Although I believe that the table is 'really' of the same colour all over, the parts that reflect the light look much brighter than the other parts, and some parts look white because of reflected light. I know that, if I move, the parts that reflect the light will be different, so that the apparent distribution of colours on the table will change. It follows that if several people are looking at the table at the same moment, no two of them will see exactly the same distribution of colours, because no two can see it from exactly the same point of view, and any change in the point of view makes some change in the way the light is reflected.

For most practical purposes these differences are unimportant, but to the painter they are all-important: the painter has to unlearn the habit of thinking that things seem to have the colour which common sense says they 'really' have, and to learn the habit of seeing things as they appear. Here we have already the beginning of one of the distinctions that cause most trouble in philosophy—the distinction between 'appearance' and 'reality', between what things seem to be and what they are. The painter wants to know what things seem to be, the practical man and the philosopher want to know what they are; but the philosopher's wish to know this is stronger than the practical man's, and is more troubled by knowledge as to the difficulties of answering the question.

To return to the table. It is evident from what we have found, that there is no colour which pre-eminently appears to be the colour of the table, or even of any one particular part of the table—it appears to be of different colours from different points of view, and there is no reason for regarding some of these as more really its colour than others. And we know that even from a given point of view the colour will seem different by artificial light, or to a colour-blind man, or to a man wearing blue spectacles, while in the dark there will be no colour at all, though to touch and hearing the table will be unchanged. This colour is not something which is inherent in the table, but something depending upon the table and the spectator and the way the light falls on the table. When, in ordinary life, we speak of the colour of the table, we only mean the sort of colour which it will seem to have to a normal spectator from an ordinary point of view under usual conditions of light. But the other colours which appear under other conditions have just as good a right to be considered real; and therefore, to avoid favouritism, we are compelled to deny that, in itself, the table has any one particular colour.

The same thing applies to the texture. With the naked eye one can see the grain, but otherwise the table looks smooth and even. If we looked at it through a microscope, we should see roughnesses and hills and valleys, and all sorts of differences that are imperceptible to the naked eye. Which of these is the 'real' table? We are naturally tempted to say that what we see through the microscope is more real, but that in turn would be changed by a still more powerful microscope. If, then, we cannot trust what we see with the naked eye, why should we trust what we see through a microscope? Thus, again, the confidence in our senses with which we began deserts us.

The shape of the table is no better. We are all in the habit of judging as to the 'real' shapes of things, and we do this so unreflectingly that we come to think we actually see the real shapes. But, in fact, as we all have to learn if we try to draw, a given thing looks different in shape from every different point of view. If our table is 'really' rectangular, it will look, from almost all points of view, as if it had two acute angles and two obtuse angles. If opposite sides are parallel, they will look as if they converged to a point away from the spectator; if they are of equal length, they will look as if the nearer side were longer. All these things are not commonly noticed in looking at a table, because experience has taught us to construct the 'real' shape from the apparent shape, and the 'real' shape is what interests us as practical men. But the 'real' shape is not what we see; it is something inferred from what we see. And what we see is constantly changing in shape as we move about the room; so that here again the senses seem not to give us the truth about the table itself, but only about the appearance of the table.

Similar difficulties arise when we consider the sense of touch. It is true that the table always gives us a sensation of hardness, and we feel that it resists pressure. But the sensation we obtain depends upon how hard we press the table and also upon what part of the body we press with; thus the various sensations due to various pressures or various parts of the body cannot be supposed to reveal directly any definite property of the table, but at most to be signs of some property which perhaps causes all the sensations, but is not actually apparent in any of them. And the same applies still more obviously to the sounds which can be elicited by rapping the table.

Thus it becomes evident that the real table, if there is one, is not the same as what we immediately experience by sight or touch or hearing. The real table, if there is one, is not immediately known to us at all, but must be an inference from what is immediately known. Hence, two very difficult questions at once arise; namely, (1) Is there a real table at all? (2) If so, what sort of object can it be?

It will help us in considering these questions to have a few simple terms of which the meaning is definite and clear. Let us give the name of 'sense-data' to the things that are immediately known in sensation: such things as colours, sounds, smells, hardnesses, roughnesses, and so on. We shall give the name 'sensation' to the experience of being immediately aware of these things. Thus, whenever we see a colour, we have a sensation of the colour, but the colour itself is a sense-datum, not a sensation. The colour is that of which we are immediately aware, and the awareness itself is the sensation. It is plain that if we are to know anything about the table, it must be by means of the sense-data—brown colour, oblong shape, smoothness, etc.—which we associate with the table; but, for the reasons which have been given, we cannot say that the table is the sense-data, or even that the sense-data are directly properties of the table. Thus a problem arises as to the relation of the sense-data to the real table, supposing there is such a thing.

The real table, if it exists, we will call a 'physical object'. Thus we have to consider the relation of sense-data to physical objects. The collection of all physical objects is called 'matter'. Thus our two questions may be re-stated as follows: (1) Is there any such thing as matter? (2) If so, what is its nature?

The philosopher who first brought prominently forward the reasons for regarding the immediate objects of our senses as not existing independently of us was Bishop Berkeley (1685-1753). His Three Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous, in Opposition to Sceptics and Atheists, undertake to prove that there is no such thing as matter at all, and that the world consists of nothing but minds and their ideas. Hylas has hitherto believed in matter, but he is no match for Philonous, who mercilessly drives him into contradictions and paradoxes, and makes his own denial of matter seem, in the end, as if it were almost common sense. The arguments employed are of very different value: some are important and sound, others are confused or quibbling. But Berkeley retains the merit of having shown that the existence of matter is capable of being denied without absurdity, and that if there are any things that exist independently of us they cannot be the immediate objects of our sensations.

There are two different questions involved when we ask whether matter exists, and it is important to keep them clear. We commonly mean by 'matter' something which is opposed to 'mind', something which we think of as occupying space and as radically incapable of any sort of thought or consciousness. It is chiefly in this sense that Berkeley denies matter; that is to say, he does not deny that the sense-data which we commonly take as signs of the existence of the table are really signs of the existence of something independent of us, but he does deny that this something is non-mental, that it is neither mind nor ideas entertained by some mind. He admits that there must be something which continues to exist when we go out of the room or shut our eyes, and that what we call seeing the table does really give us reason for believing in something which persists even when we are not seeing it. But he thinks that this something cannot be radically different in nature from what we see, and cannot be independent of seeing altogether, though it must be independent of our seeing. He is thus led to regard the 'real' table as an idea in the mind of God. Such an idea has the required permanence and independence of ourselves, without being—as matter would otherwise be—something quite unknowable, in the sense that we can only infer it, and can never be directly and immediately aware of it.

Other philosophers since Berkeley have also held that, although the table does not depend for its existence upon being seen by me, it does depend upon being seen (or otherwise apprehended in sensation) by some mind—not necessarily the mind of God, but more often the whole collective mind of the universe. This they hold, as Berkeley does, chiefly because they think there can be nothing real—or at any rate nothing known to be real except minds and their thoughts and feelings. We might state the argument by which they support their view in some such way as this: 'Whatever can be thought of is an idea in the mind of the person thinking of it; therefore nothing can be thought of except ideas in minds; therefore anything else is inconceivable, and what is inconceivable cannot exist.'

Such an argument, in my opinion, is fallacious; and of course those who advance it do not put it so shortly or so crudely. But whether valid or not, the argument has been very widely advanced in one form or another; and very many philosophers, perhaps a majority, have held that there is nothing real except minds and their ideas. Such philosophers are called 'idealists'. When they come to explaining matter, they either say, like Berkeley, that matter is really nothing but a collection of ideas, or they say, like Leibniz (1646-1716), that what appears as matter is really a collection of more or less rudimentary minds.

But these philosophers, though they deny matter as opposed to mind, nevertheless, in another sense, admit matter. It will be remembered that we asked two questions; namely, (1) Is there a real table at all? (2) If so, what sort of object can it be? Now both Berkeley and Leibniz admit that there is a real table, but Berkeley says it is certain ideas in the mind of God, and Leibniz says it is a colony of souls. Thus both of them answer our first question in the affirmative, and only diverge from the views of ordinary mortals in their answer to our second question. In fact, almost all philosophers seem to be agreed that there is a real table: they almost all agree that, however much our sense-data—colour, shape, smoothness, etc.—may depend upon us, yet their occurrence is a sign of something existing independently of us, something differing, perhaps, completely from our sense-data, and yet to be regarded as causing those sense-data whenever we are in a suitable relation to the real table.

Now obviously this point in which the philosophers are agreed—the view that there is a real table, whatever its nature may be—is vitally important, and it will be worth while to consider what reasons there are for accepting this view before we go on to the further question as to the nature of the real table. Our next chapter, therefore, will be concerned with the reasons for supposing that there is a real table at all.

Before we go farther it will be well to consider for a moment what it is that we have discovered so far. It has appeared that, if we take any common object of the sort that is supposed to be known by the senses, what the senses immediately tell us is not the truth about the object as it is apart from us, but only the truth about certain sense-data which, so far as we can see, depend upon the relations between us and the object. Thus what we directly see and feel is merely 'appearance', which we believe to be a sign of some 'reality' behind. But if the reality is not what appears, have we any means of knowing whether there is any reality at all? And if so, have we any means of finding out what it is like?

Such questions are bewildering, and it is difficult to know that even the strangest hypotheses may not be true. Thus our familiar table, which has roused but the slightest thoughts in us hitherto, has become a problem full of surprising possibilities. The one thing we know about it is that it is not what it seems. Beyond this modest result, so far, we have the most complete liberty of conjecture. Leibniz tells us it is a community of souls: Berkeley tells us it is an idea in the mind of God; sober science, scarcely less wonderful, tells us it is a vast collection of electric charges in violent motion.

Among these surprising possibilities, doubt suggests that perhaps there is no table at all. Philosophy, if it cannot answer so many questions as we could wish, has at least the power of asking questions which increase the interest of the world, and show the strangeness and wonder lying just below the surface even in the commonest things of daily life.


Excerpted from The Problems of Philosophy by Bertrand Russell. Copyright © 2015 Philosophical Library/Open Road Integrated Media, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

I. Appearance and Reality
II. The Existence of Matter
III. The Nature of Matter
IV. Idealism
V. Knowledge by Acquaintance and Knowledge by Description
VI. On Induction
VII. On Our Knowledge of General Principles
VIII. How A PRIORI Knowledge is Possible
IX. The World of Universals
X. On Our Knowledge of Universals
XI. On Intuitive Knowledge
XII. Truth and Falsehood
XIII. "Knowledge, Error, and Probable Opinion"
XIV. The Limits of Philosophical Knowledge
XV. The Value of Philosophy
Bibliographical Note
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The Problems of Philosophy is one of the first concrete expressions of analytic philosophy, and it is, in fact, the first book of analytic philosophy whose main focus is central questions of epistemology and metaphysics, two of the main branches of philosophy. But best of all, it's a book that can be read for pleasure as well as profit by the general public, undergraduate students, graduate students, and professional philosophers. Almost alone among philosophical books of the first quarter of the twentieth century, it's read and studied today, both inside and outside the classroom.

Bertrand Russell was forty when The Problems of Philosophy was published in 1912, but he was already a well-known British philosopher and mathematician. Educated at home until he was eighteen, he then went to Cambridge to study mathematics and, after a few years, philosophy. At first he was under the influence of the British Idealists, especially Bradley, McTaggert, and Stout, but after the turn of the century, he revolted against Idealism and became increasingly attracted to the traditional British Empiricism of Locke, Berkeley, and Hume. Empiricism in general is the view that our knowledge of what exists and what properties those things have is based upon sense experience. Little by little Russell came to embrace, and eventually to represent, an updated empiricism, an empiricism rooted in past centuries but responsive to later developments, especially those in logic. In 1912, Russell was far from a fully "updated empiricist," but The Problems of Philosophy is a first step along the path, and it's a big one.

Russell, however, is much more than a figure in the historyof philosophy. He was the second son in an aristocratic and political family, and although his parents died when he was quite young, he, like them, became a "Whig aristocrat" and frequently championed liberal causes and actively participated in political affairs. He was twice jailed for his anti-war activities, for example, and spent six months in prison during World War I for an inflammatory pamphlet he had written. He also wrote books on a number of topics of general cultural interest, including history, education, marriage, and happiness. For the ten years prior to the appearance of The Problems of Philosophy, however, most of his time and energy was devoted to work on the foundations of mathematics. The fruit of his labor was Principia Mathematica, a massive and very difficult three-volume work written in collaboration with his former teacher, Alfred North Whitehead. According to Russell and Whitehead, pure mathematics can be deduced from the principles of logic alone. At least one of Russell's discoveries during that ten-year period of intense intellectual activity, namely, his Theory of Descriptions, is utilized in The Problems of Philosophy, however the book is not technical, and no prior acquaintance with the Theory of Descriptions is needed to understand it.


Supposing that The Problems of Philosophy is the first book of epistemology and metaphysics that might be regarded as analytic, what does that mean? Actually, there are a number of questions here: (1) What is philosophy? (2) What are epistemology and metaphysics? And (3) What distinguishes analytic philosophy from scholastic philosophy, say, or existential philosophy -- that is, from other philosophies?

Russell gives us an answer to the first question. On the very first page he says that "Philosophy is merely the attempt to answer … ultimate questions, not carelessly and dogmatically, as we do in ordinary life and even in the sciences, but critically, after exploring all that makes such questions puzzling, and after realizing all the vagueness and confusion that underlie our ordinary ideas." Boiling this down a bit, philosophy is the attempt to answer ultimate questions on the basis of the most attentive and careful scrutiny and reasoning we are capable of. It's harder to define an ultimate question in a satisfactory way than it is to give an example of one -- "Does God exist?" is an ultimate question -- but generally speaking, an ultimate question is one whose answer, whatever it may be, is extremely fundamental to our beliefs about ourselves and the world. Duly organized into a whole, careful reasoning about and answers to such questions provide us with a worldview, a basic -- the most basic -- framework into which we fit ourselves and everything else. A worldview, then, is essentially a philosophy.

As for the second question: metaphysics is the branch of philosophy that critically examines (1) the most fundamental categories of things that exist -- for example, material objects, minds, events -- (2) the most fundamental constitution of things that exist -- for example, substance and attribute -- (3) the most fundamental aspects of reality -- for example, space and time -- (4) the most fundamental relations between things that exist -- for example, that between mind and body -- (5) the most fundamental properties of things that exist -- for example, the extension (occupancy of space) of material bodies, the (supposed) existence of the soul after death -- as well as (6) the very idea of existence itself. In short, metaphysics attempts to present a comprehensive, coherent, and well-argued for theory of reality, of all that is, couched in terms of the most basic categories and distinctions possible.

Epistemology, on the other hand, is concerned with knowledge. It critically examines (1) the nature or definition of knowledge -- for example, is knowledge the same thing as true belief? -- (2) the nature and importance of the most fundamental sources of knowledge -- for example, perception, memory, reason, and testimony -- (3) the scope or extent of knowledge -- is there moral knowledge, for example, or, more radically, knowledge of external objects (material objects) at all? -- (4) the basic structure of knowledge and justified belief -- is there foundational knowledge, for instance, upon which all other knowledge rests? -- (5) the ultimate justification for certain kinds of basic inferences -- for instance, inferences from observed cases of some connection (e.g., that between eating bread and being nourished) to unobserved cases of the same connection -- as well as (6) certain fundamental concepts connected with knowledge, such as truth, belief, and justification. In short, epistemology attempts to present a comprehensive, coherent, and well-argued for theory of knowledge, couched in the terms of the most basic concepts and distinctions possible.

And finally, what makes analytic philosophy analytic -- in other words, what distinguishes it from other kinds or forms of philosophy? Negatively, the answer is, "Not its questions or answers." Russell's questions are traditional ones, in the main inherited from Descartes and other philosophers of the modern era, and his answers are, none of them, radically new or original, though there are original distinctions and arguments in The Problems of Philosophy. Rather, what distinguishes analytic philosophy in general is its sustained effort (1) to break down -- to analyze -- and to clarify concepts, theses, arguments, and objections as much as possible, in order to ascertain exactly what is being said and argued, (2) to make distinctions which are helpful in the solution of philosophical problems, (3) to evaluate, on the basis of careful logical scrutiny, the truth or falsity of premises found in, and the nature and strength of inferences made in, philosophical arguments, and (4) to present arguments for philosophical theses that have been vetted in accordance with (1)-(3). In short, analytic philosophy is distinguished from other philosophies -- scholasticism and existentialism, say -- not by its presuppositions, subject matter, or positions, but primarily by a general methodology, or mode of approach to philosophical problems. It's continuous with previous philosophy, and especially British Empiricism but is more pronounced and self-conscious in its piecemeal approach, its emphasis on argumentation, and its insistence on clarity. These characteristics are all very evident in The Problems of Philosophy.


Although Russell tackles some metaphysical problems in The Problems of Philosophy, in the main the book is focused on epistemological problems. In the first four chapters he argues that things exist independently of mind and that we can have knowledge of them.

While he undoubtedly sees something when he looks at the table in front of him, Russell says, what he sees is "what is immediately known in sensation." This is a "sense datum," the sort of thing common to the veridical perception of tables and to dreams of tables. Sense data of qualities we're acquainted with include color (e.g., red), texture (e.g., smooth), sound (e.g., shrill), and smell (e.g., rancid). Since sense data depend on people's minds for their existence, they are subjective; and since each person experiences his or her own sense data and couldn't experience anyone else's (you can experience a red sense datum that is indistinguishable from mine but not one and the same sense datum as mine), sense data are necessarily private. The conclusion Russell draws from this is that it's not necessarily a material object, a mind-independent object, that he sees when he looks at the table. The existence of the table, a material object in public space, is problematic. Maybe it doesn't exist at all. Maybe whatever exists, or at any rate whatever can be known to exist, is mind-dependent. Russell goes on to argue, however, that even though sense-data cannot exist independently of mind, that doesn't make them mental. In other words, that sense data depend on minds for their existence doesn't mean that they are parts of minds or inherently mental in nature. It is in not noticing this point that Idealism, the philosophical theory that says that everything that exists is in some sense mental, makes its central mistake. A sensation -- an act of sensing -- is different from a sense datum -- that which is sensed. While the act of sensation is essentially mental, that doesn't mean that that which is sensed -- the sense datum -- is essentially mental. A hand may be essentially biological, but that which a hand grasps -- a book, say -- isn't necessarily essentially biological.

But there are also positive reasons for thinking that material objects -- that is, objects that exist independent of minds, in a public space -- exist. Russell's main argument is that the existence of material objects is the best explanation of the existence and properties of our sense data, and the fact that people's sense data fit into a consistent, co-ordinate system of the world. The upshot is that although material objects cannot be immediately known, we can know that they exist, and also that our sense data are caused by them.

There is nothing particularly original in the first four chapters of The Problems. In the fifth chapter, however, new ground is broken, untrod by previous philosophers. Russell divides knowledge into knowledge of things (e.g., a red sense datum) and knowledge of truths (e.g., that the sun is 93 million miles from the Earth) and further distinguishes two kinds of knowledge of things: knowledge by acquaintance and knowledge by description. Sense data are known by acquaintance; material objects by description. All our knowledge, it turns out, "rests upon acquaintance as its foundation," and what we are acquainted with are sense data, ourselves, universals (of which more below), and, by memory and introspection, other objects of inner and outer sense (e.g., my desiring an ice cream cone). On the other hand, what we know by description -- a description is basically a phrase of the form 'the so-and-so'-- are material objects and other people's minds. More details follow, with the chapter culminating in the "fundamental principle" that "Every proposition which we can understand must be composed wholly of constituents with which we are acquainted." In essence, this is a cardinal tenet of the Classical British Empiricism of Locke, Berkeley, and especially Hume concerning meaning, but with the difference that it has been filtered through the sieve -- never explicitly mentioned by Russell -- of his Theory of Descriptions, a theory about the proper analysis of propositions that he devised in 1905 to solve certain problems in philosophical logic. That, in general, was Russell's tendency for the rest of his life: to meld Classical British Empiricism with modern developments in logic and philosophical logic. As far as the problem at hand in The Problems of Philosophy is concerned, the upshot of this is that our knowledge of material things is ultimately based upon our knowledge of sense data, and we do not and cannot directly know material things. Knowledge of material things is really knowledge of truths, with the matter out of which such truths is constructed being supplied by sense data.

The sixth chapter of The Problems is a very clear exposition and defense of Hume's problem of induction. This is the problem of justifying the principle that the future will resemble the past, or, better, that nature is uniform. The principle of induction, Russell shows, underwrites all our inferences from observed cases of connections between phenomena ('All observed As are Bs') to unobserved cases of the same ('The next A we come across will be a B' or 'All As are Bs'). If the principle is unjustified, then all such inferences are; and thus we have no more reason to think that next time we walk down the stairs, the stairs will support us, than that they won't. Both Hume and Russell think that the principle can't be justified on the basis of sense experience.

But the principle of induction isn't the only principle underwriting inferences that we habitually make and have confidence in, but that can't be proved on the basis of sense experience. In chapter seven, a number of others are identified, including principles of logic (such as modus ponens), mathematics (such as that two plus two equal four), metaphysics (such as the 'laws of thought,' as Russell interprets them), and ethics (such as that happiness is more desirable than misery). Russell claims that all such principles are known a priori, that is, known independently of sense experience. Kant's attempt to account for how we can have such a priori knowledge is criticized in chapter eight, and Russell argues that such knowledge is connected with universals, entities like whiteness and beauty (as opposed to white and beautiful things, whether material objects or sense data). According to Russell, universals are non-material, non-mental, "unchangeable, rigid, exact, [and] delightful to … all who love perfection more than life." Plato argued for the existence of universals, and in chapter nine Russell largely follows him. Like particular objects (such as sense data and material objects), universals are known by acquaintance or by description, but in both cases, through abstraction.

The basis of a priori knowledge, Russell argues in chapter ten, is our knowledge of universals. In particular, "All a priori knowledge deals exclusively with the relations of universals." The principle of induction and other fundamental principles are thus justified, but their justification is a priori, and they concern only relations of universals.

Intuitive knowledge, truth, and the nature of knowledge itself are the focus of the next three chapters. By intuitive knowledge, Russell means knowledge of self-evident truths, propositions either incapable of proof (because they are so basic) or just clearly true, even if capable of proof. Many propositions known a priori are self-evidently true, but so are some propositions known on the basis of sense experience, that is, known empirically. Some propositions concerning sense data and some concerning memory are self-evident, for example. Truth itself is "some form of correspondence between belief and fact," but belief isn't "a relation of the mind to a single object, which [is] what is believed." Believing is a multi-termed relation. If John believes that Tom hit Bill, then John is the subject of the belief, and Tom, Bill, and hitting are its objects. Belief ties all these terms together in a certain order. If Tom believes that John hit Bill, the terms of the belief are the same, but the belief is a different one, because the order of the terms is different.

As for knowledge: it's certainly not true belief. First, lucky guesses which happen to be true aren't knowledge. Consider someone who believes, on the basis of no solid evidence, that Seabiscuit will win the fifth race; and suppose that Seabiscuit does win that race. Still, that person doesn't know that Seabiscuit will win the race. Second, true beliefs validly deduced from false beliefs aren't necessarily knowledge. Imagine that someone believes that the United States has had a Republican President but validly deduced that belief from the false belief that Clinton was a President of the United States and a Republican. Again, such a true belief wouldn't count as knowledge. This last counter-example, incidentally, a modification of one of Russell's own, also shows that knowledge can't be defined as justified true belief. Over fifty years after Russell wrote, the fact that justified true belief isn't necessarily knowledge would be re-discovered and give rise to repeated efforts to solve what is known as "the Gettier Problem." Solving the Gettier Problem means formulating an adequate definition of knowledge that avoids such counter-examples. No solution to the Gettier Problem has met with widespread acceptance among philosophers.


In the last two chapters, Russell discusses philosophy itself, and in particular, the scope of philosophical knowledge and the value of philosophy. Philosophy can't prove the "dogmas of religion, the essential rationality of the universe, the illusoriness of matter, [or] the unreality of evil," Russell thinks, and to try "to prescribe to the universe by means of a priori principles," as many philosophers have done, is a mistake. "Knowledge as to what exists [is] limited to what we can learn from experience." Essentially, what Russell is rejecting in such remarks is a conception of philosophy that erects grand and emotionally satisfying systems, such as (as he interprets it) Hegel's, on a foundation consisting of nothing more than a few a priori building blocks.

But on a more positive note, there is "the value of philosophy and why it ought to be studied." In as eloquent a statement as can be found anywhere in the history of the philosophy, Russell argues that "it is exclusively among the goods of the mind that the value of philosophy is to be found; and only those that are not indifferent to these goods can be persuaded that the study of philosophy is not a waste of time." The "knowledge [which philosophy] aims at," he tells us, "is the kind of knowledge which gives unity and system to the body of the sciences, and the kind which results from a critical examination of the grounds of our convictions, prejudices, and beliefs." Without philosophy, we go through life "imprisoned in the prejudices derived from common sense." Philosophy liberates us from such prejudices by suggesting "many possibilities which enlarge our thoughts and free them from the tyranny of custom," by removing "the somewhat arrogant dogmatism of those who have never traveled into the region of liberating doubt," by "keeping alive our sense of wonder [in] showing [us] familiar things in an unfamiliar aspect," and by making us aware of "the greatness of the objects. . .it contemplates, and [thus making possible]. . .freedom from narrow and personal aims." This last point is an especially important one for Russell. As we normally view the world, it's simply a means or an obstacle to the attainment of personal and private ends. Philosophy enables us to escape this feverish pursuit of petty, self-centered interests. It enables us to view the world "as God might see [it], without a here and now, without hopes and fears, without the trammels of customary beliefs and traditional prejudices, calmly, dispassionately, in the sole and exclusive desire [for] knowledge -- knowledge as impersonal, as purely contemplative, as it is possible for man to attain."

Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, and Spinoza all would have smiled in agreement with these remarks.

Hye-Kyung Kim is part of the Department of Philosophy at the University of Wisconsin at Green Bay.
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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 9, 2005

    A thought-provoking book

    One of my favorite books by Russell! A very straight-forward introduction to philosophical issues as Russell saw them.

    2 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 23, 2012


    She licks her paw.~•|Sunny|•~
    The den has one large nest big enough for two cats.

    1 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 16, 2009

    Terrific beginning to any study beyond what we know, or what we think we know

    This book is generally difficult but simple in relation to most other books of the philosophical kind. Russell works diligently and successfully in a mind-boggling field to simplify the matters at hand. The personal outcome is a renewed and refreshed knowledge and view of the world.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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