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This is, hands down, my favorite work in Western philosophy. Russell speaks with a profound simplicity that takes the abstract arguments of some of the greatest Western philosophers in history and makes them clear as a bell. Philosophies such as idealism, Hegelian dialectics, and Kant’s exploration of synthetic a priori knowledge, while challenging enough from their authors to turn the aspiring philosopher off the subject altogether, become transparent and obvious in this work. Russell quickly and deftly explores all major philosophical developments since the separation between philosophy and theology. What’s more, he moves directly into the heart of epistemology, into the study of thought itself. All knowledge hinges upon how we think and how we come to perceive, believe, know, or evaluate truth. A study of this process is a necessary foundation for any serious philosophical or scientific pursuit.
The work begins with a beautiful, simple, and yet quite profound exploration of matter and the nature of an external world. In a way, this reflects the beauty of philosophy itself. Certain things seem obvious and unquestionable. Like, I see a table before me. That means there’s a table there. But wait – maybe not. This is one of those arguments that one needs to have a philosophical bent in order to consider at all, and yet, there’s something to it.
Russell claims that philosophy is a tool to separate our assumptions from our knowledge. It operates through questions, asking us, “do we really know what we think we know? How do we know this?” He delves right into the core of this issue by examining the most fundamental aspect of human experience. What is the relation between appearance and reality?
Most of us never question this. If we see something, then we believe it. It’s there, and it seems foolish to think otherwise. But at the core of it, we never experience the thing itself. We only have sense data, impressions that pass through our field of experience. It seems likely that there is something that corresponds to these sense impressions, but this is by no means certain. Even if there is a thing that corresponds to our sense data, we have no certain knowledge as to the nature of that thing.
Our entire world, the whole of our reality, is no more than a collection of relations, between the self and the sense impressions we receive. All of this is a bit abstract, and all I can say there is that Russell articulates it far more clearly and tangibly than I’m able to. Another thing that really impresses me about his work is that he takes some of the most intimidating philosophers and not only describes their conclusions artfully and gracefully, but points out the holes in their conclusions so simply that they seem impossible to miss.
Take Descartes, for example. One of the founding fathers of modern philosophy. The guy who sought certain knowledge, and arrived at the foundation, “I think therefore I am.” What could be more simple and self-evident than that? And yet, there’s a massive unwarranted assumption underlined twice in the short statement. “I.” Who is this “I” character, anyway? Russell shows that at the barest core, all that we can know for certain is that experience is. We have no real knowledge about the self that is receiving these impressions, that seems immersed in this field of experience. We reflexively assume that there is an “I” that receives these things, but at the core of it, what we think of as “I” is continuously changing. It has no solidity or certainty in itself. Russell explains these things in a way that makes the conclusion unavoidably clear.
Even better than this is his handling of the work of Immanuel Kant. Kant is one of the most abstruse and challenging thinkers in the history of Western philosophy. He begins with the question of synthetic a priori knowledge. Come again? What’s that? It’s really not so difficult to understand, but like many philosophers, Kant’s work is shrouded in technical terminology and delivered in a way that makes it very difficult to grasp. Russell explains it so simply that anyone can understand it.
Essentially, we have different ways of coming to conclusions from a given premise without additional information or experience – analytic and synthetic. Analytic reasoning (or analytic a priori knowledge) is often pretty common sense. A tall man is a man. A red car is a car. The premise (tall man or red car) contains the conclusion (man or car). The basic a = a kind of stuff. Now synthetic a priori knowledge involves coming to a conclusion from a premise that doesn’t include the conclusion. That sounds a bit abstract, right? But we all do it every day with mathematics.
Kant’s example, which Russell picks up and passes along, is 7 + 5 = 12. We all know this to be true. But nothing in seven, twelve, or the act of addition contains the idea of twelve. And we don’t have to experience seven things and five things and put them together to know that they’re going to come to twelve. We synthesize the given premise with additional information that we don’t come to through experience. Kant is a reaction to the empiricists, who think that all ideas arise from sense-experience. His work is a demonstration that, in addition to the relation between numbers, we have all sorts of ideas that form the foundation of our cognition, but that have no basis in experience. But not only does Russell explain this with crystal clarity, he shows how Kant stopped short, and how he could have taken his understanding further.
These are only a few of the points of genius Russell comes to early in the work. He explores the nature of truth and the difference between probability and certainty. He looks into belief and how belief is associated with knowledge. This is an essential listen not only for those interested in the subject of philosophy, but for any interested in rooting out assumptions and clarifying their knowledge. Possibly the finest work in the study of thought ever written, but certainly the finest I have yet experienced.
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