Bertrand Russell & “Appearance and Reality”

One of the most well-known and influential philosophers of the 20th Century was Bertrand Russell (1872-1970). Bertrand Russell was a British philosopher, logician, essayist and social critic best known for his work in mathematical logic and analytic philosophy. His most influential contributions include his championing of logicism, refining Gottlob Frege’s predicate calculus, a strong defense of neutral monism, and his theories of definite descriptions, logical atomism and logical types. Russell is recognized as one of the main founders of modern analytic philosophy. His works on Type Theory and contributions with A.N. Whitehead on Principia Mathematica reinvigorated the study of logic throughout the twentieth century. Over the course of a long career, Russell made significant contributions to a broad range of topics such as ethics, politics, educational theory, the history of ideas, and the philosophy of religion. Russell was awarded the Order of Merit in 1949 and the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1950. Noted for anti-nuclear protests and for campaigns against western involvement in the Vietnam War, Russell remained a prominent public figure in both the philosophical and peace movements until his death at the age of 98.

In his 1912 book “The Problems of Philosophy,” Bertrand Russell attempts to create a brief and accessible guide to problems found within philosophy. Focusing on problems he believes will lead to constructive discussion, Russell concentrates on knowledge rather than metaphysics and explores philosophical questions from a logical position. Russell begins by asking the reader to consider what knowledge exists that can be known beyond reasonable doubt. His purpose is to produce the realization that radical doubt brings even the most self-evident assumptions in our everyday lives under reconsideration. Russell describes a scene in which he is sitting in a chair at a table on which are papers with writing on them. All of these “facts” are easily called into question. Russell engages in this discussion to find out how knowledge of such things is possible at all.

In order examine the issue in question, Russell concentrates on the table before him. Walking around the table, he notes different colors from different points of view. Russell notes the difference in color throughout the table, the change in color when lighting is removed or adjusted, the alteration of color as one move around the table, or the different color reported by a color-blind person. The same could be done with the claims about a table’s texture. If one asserts the table is smooth, one could look through a microscope and see the hills and valleys in the grain and rough textures caused by variations in the composition of the wood.

For Russell, as one digs down and tests these statements, one becomes aware of the difference between appearance (how things seemed), and reality (how things are discovered to be). As one continues to dig and discredit appearances, the questions arise is there a table at all, and if there is, what sort of object it is. Russell suggests that our common existential assertions about the table are really about sense-data. Our immediate awareness of the data is formed through our senses. While this data is sensed, we might doubt whether there is something, a reality or “matter” behind the data that we sense. While mainstream science during the height of Bertrand Russel’s career viewed matter as “a vast collection of electric charges in violent motion,” Russell treats matter in a more general way, which is anything that is “behind” the sense-data.

For if matter is treated as something opposed to mind that occupies space, there have been several parties that historically have disagreed. For example, the Irish philosopher George Berkely (1685-1753) maintained that the sense-data does stand for some outside reality. Berkely believed this is necessary to explain how we know the outside world. Berkely supposed that if the reality of the table was drastically different from its appearance it could not be known. The ideas responsible for our sensation of sense-datum linger even when we are not present.

Russell observes that in absolute idealism Berkeley’s concept of the all-perceiving mind of God is secularized into the collective mind of the universe. Russell summarizes the general idealist argument for an exclusively mental reality as “‘Whatever can be thought of is an idea in a thinker’s mind; therefore nothing can be thought of except ideas in minds; therefore anything else is inconceivable, and what is inconceivable cannot exist.” Russell rejects this argument but points out that idealism is not so radical about the question between appearance and reality. We can doubt the existence of a non-mental reality outside of appearance, but we might also doubt any sort of reality altogether (matter in the more general sense). Russell’s argument also begs the question of if reality is not the same as appearance, do we have any means of knowing whether there is an independent reality? And if so, are there any means of knowing what that reality is actually like?
the author

Matt has been studying and analyzing politics at all levels since the 2004 Presidential Election. He writes about political trends and demographics, the role of the media in politics, comparative politics, political theory, and the domestic and international political economy. Matt is also interested in history, philosophy, comparative religion, and record collecting.

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