Even Homer sometimes nods
Bertrand Russell was a great philosopher, who made valuable contributions to philosophy. He was also a very creative philosopher. His view was wider than the mathematical and analytic philosophy, which were his specialities and which he helped develop. As for this we must also mention that he stimulated Wittgenstein, who had approached him. Russell was politically very active (which brought him in prison because of his opposition to the First World War). He popularized philosophy. And so on. It was not without reason that he got the Nobel Prize in Literature for his work. He contributed to the advancement of philosophical thinking and thinking in general. It will be clear that I cannot do justice to his work in a blog.
Russell also made mistakes, also philosophically, and in many respects his philosophical ideas have been superseded. Here I want to discuss such a mistake.
Let me take again Russell’s book The problems of philosophy, which I discussed in my last blog. In this book he defends the view that “all our knowledge of truths depends upon our intuitive knowledge” (ch. 10). I’ll not go into details, but Russell says that some of our self-evident (intuitive) truths immediately derive from sensation. “We call such truths ‘truths of perception’”, he says. According to Russell these self-evident truths of perception – or perceptive intuitions, as I’ll also call them – can be of two kinds: either they can assert the existence of a sense-datum in an unanalyzed way or they can be judgments of memory (ch. 11). And just here we have a problem. Particularly the idea of sense-data has been the object of much debate and in the end it appeared untenable, especially after its rejection by Karl R. Popper, who put forward strong arguments against the idea. Sense-data, so Russell, is the name for “the things that are immediately known in sensation: such things as colours, sounds, smells, hardnesses, roughnesses, and so on.” (ch. 1) Now the idea that sense-data exist is seen as naive, although many great philosophers thought so. “[I]f we are to know anything about [a] table”, so Russell, “it must be by the means of the sense-data – brown colour, oblong shape, smoothness, etc. – which we associate with the table” (ch. 1). However, one can object that colour, shape, structure (like smoothness), and other properties not mentioned by Russell like material (the wood the table is made of) are not data objectively given in nature. These properties are shaped in the mind. For example, physically colour does not exist. There are only waves with a certain length, which are interpreted by us as red, blue, brown, etc. It is the same for all other properties that Russell ascribes to sense-date. That we see a table in a certain way is an interpretation of the mind. It’s not a kind of objective fact like a sense-datum in the sense of Russell.
Take now the other kind of perceptive intuition: judgments of memory. It’s true that Russell admits that we often make mistakes in what we remember. Therefore he thinks that intuitive truth of memory is gradual. There is a transition from what we certainly and self-evidently know to what we are uncertain about whether we remember it to clear mistakes in memory (cf chs. 11 and 13). Nevertheless there are absolute self-evident truths of this kind, so Russell. Memories and other mental facts can be self-evidently true if they refer to private facts that are finally unknown to others and can be known only by the one who has them. Let me quote Russell for an example: “When Othello believes that Desdemona loves Cassio, the corresponding fact, if his belief were true, would be ‘Desdemona’s love for Cassio’. This would be a fact with which no one could have acquaintance except Desdemona; hence in the sense of self-evidence that we are considering, the truth that Desdemona loves Cassio (if it were a truth) could only be self-evident to Desdemona. All mental facts, and all facts concerning sense-data have this same privacy: there is only one person to whom they can be self-evident in our present sense, since there is only one person who can be acquainted with the mental things or sense-data concerned.” It is as if Desdemona has a list with characteristics of being in love that she checks and then says: “Indeed, I’m in love with Cassio”. No, it doesn’t work that way. For Desdemona there is no fact of “Desdemona’s love for Cassio” that can be self-evident to her. Russell confuses here the third-person perspective of Othello and the first-person perspective of Desdemona. She simply is in love with Cassio, without thinking.There is a saying that even Homer sometimes nods. We use it when even the most gifted person makes mistakes. Despite his flaws Homer was a great poet. Accordingly Russell was an excellent and brilliant philosopher, even though we don’t always agree with him.