Bertrand Russell: The Passionate Sceptic

Philosophical Studies (Dublin) 7:136-142 (1957)
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From A. N. Whitehead, his senior collaborator in the classic work on mathematical logic which established his philosophical reputation, Bertrand Russell once provoked the exasperated remark: “Bertie, you’re an aristocrat, not a gentleman”. To-day having matured in the lived experience of eighty-five years and having spanned this century with widely-publicised books, articles and lectures, Russell remains a living paradox in whom the cool logician, the social prophet and the tantalising polemist have yet to achieve integration. Issuing from an established intellectual family with a precociously questioning mind and a moral courage equal to the assertion of any truth, educating himself to a razor-keen mind and a mastery of lucid prose, he has adopted the public role of a witty sophist as well as an iconoclast angry with conservative convention in moral, social and religious conduct. Theoretically practical conduct is a realm of private feeling and not of objective truth in his philosophy, which he implements with literal freedom. Nevertheless he must be conscious that his polemic often falls short of the standard of a disciplined respect for truth, though he might explain away this defect by referring to the accepted rules of the game which he plays…hard. Yet his biographer notes that he resents criticism of his moral and social writings more than of his purely academic work. And his aim, as expressed in a letter from Brixton prison in 1918 where an embarrassed government confined his biting pacifism, is constructive: “There is a little wisdom in the world; Heraclitus, Spinoza, and a saying here and there. I want to add to it, even if only ever so little”.



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