“We help create the truths we register,” say Charles Sanders Peirce and William James. “Does it follow then, that Santa Claus exists?” asks a sceptical Bertrand Russell.
Bertrand Russell was born in 1872 to a wealthy, aristocratic family in Monmouthshire, Wales. He became drawn to philosophy, logic and mathematics, eventually becoming a fellow at Cambridge University.
In the BBC interview conducted on 4 March 1959 by the BBC TV programme Face to Face with John Freeman, Russell spoke of what first gave him the incentive to study mathematics. He named Euclid, and said this was the “loveliest stuff I have ever seen in my life.”
The Conflict Between Science and Theology
In the Preface to his History of Western Philosophy, a comprehensive overview of the subject, Russell says: “Philosophy, from the earliest times, has been not merely an affair of the schools, or of disputation between a handful of learned men. It has been an integral part of the life of the community, and as such I have tried to consider it.” Russell never wavered from that conviction.
Speaking of science in his History of Western Philosophy, Russell says: “Science tells us what we can know, but what we can know is little, and if we forget how much we cannot know we become insensitive to many things of very great importance.”
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On the other hand, Russell has no patience with anything that smacks of mankind’s instinctive search for beliefs to give our lives comfort and meaning, because those beliefs might be false:
“Theology induces a dogmatic belief that we have knowledge where in fact we have ignorance, and by doing so generates a kind of impertinent insolence towards the universe. Uncertainty, in the presence of vivid hopes and fears, is painful, but must be endured if we wish to live without the support of comforting fairy tales.”
This is a stance that sits in firm opposition to the theories of Charles Sanders Peirce and William James, and Russell slices through their argument with typical directness.
The Principles and Flaws of Pragmatism
Pragmatist Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914) was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Although a scientist, he took up philosophy as a hobby. He was a teacher of mathematics at John Hopkins University and for many years was employed by the US Coast and Geodetic Survey. Jeremy Harwood claims in Philosophy – 100 Great Thinkers, that Peirce worked by the scientific method in aiming to dispel philosophical doubt, believing that logic should be the basis of all philosophical theory. According to Bertrand Russell, Peirce’s theory has some fundamental flaws.
In History of Western Philosophy, Russell describes how the pragmatist and psychologist from New York, William James (1842-1910) credits Charles Sanders Peirce with being the first to enunciate the principle of pragmaticism. He quotes Peirce’s words: “To attain clearness in our thoughts of an object, we need only consider what conceivable effects of a practical kind the object might involve.”
William James’ view is that the purpose of philosophy is to discover what difference philosophy makes to “you or me” in order to ascertain which world-formula is true. This causes the theories themselves to be used as instruments, and not as answers to enigmas. In other words, an idea can be seen to be true if it is profitable or beneficial. “Truth happens to an idea, it is made true by events.” The truth needs to agree with reality, but not copy it, James believes.
The Myth of Santa Claus
Russell himself does not think much of this as a theory, and so he suggests Santa Claus as a hypothesis. In the widest sense of the word, that Santa Claus exists is true, although Santa Claus does not – actually – exist. “No wonder the Pope condemned the pragmatic defence of religion,” says Russell. Russell continues by explaining that James wants people to be happy, and if belief in God makes them happy, let them believe in Him. “This, so far, is only benevolence, not philosophy,” says Russell. It may be true that belief makes people happy, but that doesn’t prove that God is an actual being.
Peirce states, “If one can define accurately all the conceivable experimental phenomena which the affirmation of denial of a concept could imply, one will have a complete definition of the concept.” Everything rests on achieving a “consensus of opinion.” Without it, Peirce thinks he could not discover the truth.
In other words, reality is what the consensus of opinion says it is.
The pragmatists’ attempt to build belief on scepticism is bound to fail, says Bertrand Russell, simply from an attempt to ignore extra-human facts, and so Russell dismisses the entire theory as a fallacy.
For Peirce, pragmatism is a theory of meaning, and for James, it is a theory of truth. But for Russell it is “a form of subjective madness, characteristic of most modern philosophy.”
The Life of Bertrand Russell – A Progression from Academia to Activism
“The first war made me feel it just wouldn’t do to live in an ivory tower,” said Bertrand Russell in the Face to Face interview. Academics, Russell said, could not remain cut off from the real world. It was the brutal brush with the realities of the 1914-1918 war that propelled him into turning away from traditional philosophy within the confines of academic life, and into becoming an activist and a revolutionary, committing himself wholeheartedly to social reform and politics.
With age, Bertrand Russell had become more radical, said author, Tariq Ali in The Great Experiment. Finally, abstract thought progressed to direct action and Russell was thrown out of Trinity College, Cambridge during WWI for his pacifist activities and served the first of his two jail sentences. Later, in 1918, he was sent to Brixton Prison for six months for trying to incite the US to enter the war in support of Britain.
During the 1950s, broadcasting made national celebrities out of scholars and provided them with a platform on which to preach their sometimes radical views. Running a good and decent society was uppermost in the minds of many great philosophers, reformers and thinkers such as Bertrand Russell. He campaigned tirelessly for peace and protested how he deplored the thought of nuclear war.
Some telling insights into his character were portrayed on the BBC4 programme of 8 August 2011. Philosopher Roger Scruton pointed out that Russell never wrote an ugly sentence in his life and that for him, the English language was a plastic material that he put to his own use whenever he needed it.
A further clip from the 1959 BBC TV programme depicted Russell declaring how he could not bear to think of hundreds of millions of people dying in agony simply because the rulers of the world were stupid and wicked.
Philosophy: A No Man’s Land
Bertrand Russell’s aim, as a philosopher, was “to teach how to live without certainty and yet without being paralysed by hesitation.” For Russell, philosophy was the “No Man’s Land” in between science and theology, and was exposed to attack from both sides.
Russell won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1950 and was a member of the famous Bloomsbury set along with social reformer John Maynard Keynes and Virginia Woolf. He was happily married and credited his wife, Patricia, for supporting him and for assisting him in his research for his History. He died on 2 February, 1970.