Not Suitable For Unusually Stupid Children

Another entry in my occasional bad-tempered Prefaces series. This is from Bertrand Russell’s Unpopular Essays.
Preface to Unpopular Essays

A word as to the title. In the Preface to my Human Knowledge, I said that I was writing not only for professional philosophers, and that “philosophy proper deals with matters of interest to the general educated public.” Reviewers took me to task, saying that they found parts of the book difficult, and implying that my words were such as to mislead purchasers. I do not wish to expose myself again to this charge; I will therefore confess that there are several sentences in the present volume which some unusually stupid children of ten might find a little puzzling. On this ground I do not claim that the essays are popular; and if not popular, then “unpopular”.

In the Volume 2 of his biography, Ray Monk provides some context for the “peevish” tone struck here. Russell had been disappointed by the reaction to Human Knowledge, which he had hoped would win the respect of academic philosophers as well as appeal to a large general audience. In fact, neither of these things occurred. The book was savaged by his colleagues – Norman Malcolm declared that “Anyone who feels grateful to Russell, as I do, for the splendid work he did in philosophy and logic during the first twenty years of this century, is likely to regard the present book with considerable regret” – and largely ignored by the general public.

  1. Russell tried to bring philosophy to a mass audience and was not always successful: his attempts to popularize philosophy made him unpopular in many circles.

    However, I think that his attempts to widen the readership for philosophy or for philosophical issues are praiseworthy.

    There are many people, myself included, whose vague and not completely articulate dislike of religion became clear-cut atheism after a reading of Russell’s “Why I Am Not a Christian”.

    My views on sexual freedom were also influenced, as a young man, by reading Russell’s essays on the subject.

    In 2012 the advocates of sexual freedom are legion as well as the militant atheists, but in his day, Russell was a courageous heretic, writing well before sexual freedom became a cause that the bourgeoisie and the New York Times could endorse without losing their respectable status.

    I’m not a logician and I am in no position to judge Russell’s work in logic, but I am grateful for his willingness to speak out on many issues with positions that were then unpopular.

    Like anyone who is a pioneer on political and social issues, Russell made a lot of mistakes and did not always choose his causes wisely. If he had played it safe and stuck to logic, he undoubtedly would have made fewer mistakes on unpopular issues and would never have taken some positions, which in retrospect, seem unwise.

    In fact, Wittgenstein, who stuck to “pure” philosophical issues, is sometimes considered as a philosophical saint in contrast to the worldly and sinful Russell.

    I don’t find Wittgenstein to be so saintly nor Russell so sinful.

  2. Analogous to Mill’s “tyranny of the majority,” is this tyranny of the intellectual philosophers?

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