In the introduction to his sweeping History of Western Philosophy, Bertrand Russell wastes no time getting to a definition of his subject. “The conceptions of life and the world which we call ‘philosophical,’” he writes in the first sentence, “are a product of two factors: one, inherited religious and ethical conceptions; the other, the sort of investigation which may be called ‘scientific,’ using the word in its broadest sense. … Philosophy, as I shall understand the word, is something intermediate between theology and science.” (Russell makes a similar argument, in slightly different terms, in the essay “Mysticism and Logic.”)
Sidgwick’s Legacy? Russell and Moore on Meaning and Philosophical Inquiry
Recently, my teenage son and I were talking about a discussion he and his peers had about feminism and what constitutes being a feminist. It was a lively dialogue between father and son and we talked about different schools of feminism and why feminism is important. My points were benign: It’s good to think about issues like feminism and it’s important to think about them carefully, because you need to have a critical opinion you formed yourself rather than aping someone else’s point of view. A couple of the points that his group of peers raised seemed suspect, too, aimed strictly at marginalising radical feminism or at being extremely reductive of feminism overall. I said as much, trying to explain why you need to understand the bigger picture of how schools of thought relate and what they mean, rather than pigeonholing the world and calling it a day.
Partway through this father and son discussion, it occurred to me that our dialogue played into a series of semi-lucid thoughts that I had been having about the value of critical thinking and teaching some basic philosophical skills to our next generation. We live in a time when many things are under attack, whether it’s the attack on science by the religious right, attacks on privacy by our own governments, attacks on women’s rights (or attacks on women themselves), attacks on the value of a liberal arts education or even attacks on philosophy itself from smart, influential people who are kicking the shins of the very discipline without which their own would not exist. In those semi-lucid thoughts, the world has forgotten about the value of raising critical, independent thinkers.
And then my thoughts became more radical and I remembered what Bertrand Russell said about education:
Our system of education turns young people out of the schools able to read, but for the most part unable to weigh evidence or to form an independent opinion. They are then assailed, throughout the rest of their lives, by statements designed to make them believe all sorts of absurd propositions
–Bertrand Russell, Free Thought and Official Propaganda (1922)