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In Praise of Idleness by Bertrand Russell

In Praise of Idleness (1935)

by Bertrand Russell

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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Showing 5 of 5
I stumbled across this book quite by accident at the public library, and I now wish I had just ignored it. The title is highly provocative, but that's the only thing Russel seems to have put any thought into. His arguments are driven by emotion rather than reason, and he makes challenging statements which sound interesting but doesn't bother to explain his reasoning. Without explanation, his readers have no way of testing his theories, and so can't contradict or agree with him. He doesn't have the courage to open himself to criticism, and so as a work of philosophy, this book is a complete failure.
  Gayle_C._Bull | Jun 21, 2012 |
An invaluable collection of articles by the renowned british philosopher. Reflections abour social and political issues written in the 1920s and 1930s but still relevant today since their main import is a fierce defence of free enquire, calm reflection, and a call to reason (all of them very much in need in this era of global "war on terror"!) The wit and clarity of Russell's writing shine troughout. Definitely a worthwhile reading. ( )
2 vote FPdC | May 25, 2010 |
I like reading the works of Bertrand Russell. He is a crisp and thoughtful writer, and a penetrating and skilled philosopher. But we can't be great at everything and unfortunately, "In Praise of Idleness" highlights Dr. Russell's naivete when it comes to social and political commentary.

And more unfortunate still, the most naive essay of all is the title essay. In it, Dr. Russell outlines a vision whereby all able-bodied individuals would need only to work for four hours a day. Russell abhors work, and true to his upper-cust raisings, cannot see why it is really all that necessary. What he does not realize is that the beauty of the capitalism he so detests is that it allows the individual - rather than a majority vote or a dictator - choose how much work they will do based on how much "reward" they want. Should they want high reward, they can choose to work more and harder. Should they want less financial reward, they can choose a less stressful job. (Russell also misses the fact that, while many of us do detest work, they would detest it more if they did not own the fruits of their labor via wages in a capitalistic system. After all, many people work only because there is a financial motivator.)

His essay extolling the usefulness of useless knowledge is actually quite good. Rather than arguing - as its title might suggest - against a pragmatic view of knowledge (that only "useful" knowledge is worth anything), Russell argues to expand the definition of "useful." Knowledge that contributes to an individuals mental well-being, knowledge that is interesting, and knowledge that is just plain fun to think about, is every bit as useful to individuals as knowlege that helps us dig ditches, structure economies, etc. (To be useful, knowledge need not always be SOCIALLY useful.)

Much of the rest of Russell's naivete comes from offering good criticisms of fascism and communism only to forget that these criticisms may be applied to the socialism that Russell champions. The fact that centralizing power, for instance, in a dictator is a reason to jettison fascism and Marxism is every bit a reason to be wary of any attempts at political centralization - even socialist ones! To put it bluntly, Russell is so interested in his utopian vision of socialism in the abstract that he forgets to think about what socialism actually looks like in practice. (In Russell's mind, for instance, socialism somehow avoids consolidating power in an omnipotent central government. But doesn't planning need planners and delegators? And how do they differ from dictators?)

To be honest, I think Bertrand Russell shows evidence in this book of a huge blindspot. As an upper-cruster, he is appalled that people have to do such dastardly things as work and contract their labor. As an upper-cruster, he thinks that a decent way of life is possible without the type of industry that requires people to work more than four hours per day. And as an upper-cruster, he believes that everyone should be guaranteed a certain level of income regardless of what they accomplish.

In other words, Russell is simply not as penetrating as a social theorist as he is as a philosopher. This book is as clearly written and entertaining as other books by Russell, but he is clearly out of his element. ( )
4 vote KevinCK | Jul 13, 2009 |
A collection of essays written between around 1928 and 1932. Title essay is all about how a 4 hour working day for all is the path to a better society. Other ports of call include a praise of "useless" knowledge (exemplified by the eptymology of "apricot"); bettering architecture for social puposes; fascism (cross) vs. communism (cross) vs. socialism (tick); the historical cause of cynicism in the educated English speaking youth; a call for the conquest of hopeless, self-dementing man by the insects; and irrelevance/ill-definition of the "soul".

Although I agree with pretty much each and every argument in all the essays and love the polemic styling, I struggle with the cocksure armchair philostophizing. Posturing about how people "should" conduct their home life and how educators "should" deal with adolescents tend to come off as stinky academic arrogance. Although, having said that, this stuff was written 70+ years ago and all of it is relevant relevant relevant spot on spot on spot on for the beginning of the 21st century (+ 7).

I meant to include this quote in the above comments, but forgot or was too busy to do it. None of these essays are about physics, and there was plenty of quotable moments but I just liked this little rant one so much that the page number stuck in my head. Here it comes...

Bertrand Russell, What is the Soul? wrote:

This is all very well, but the physicist comes along and shows that you never bump into anything: even when you run your head against a stone wall, you do not really touch it. When you think you touch a thing, there are certain electrons and protons, forming part of your body, which are attracted and repelled by certain electrons and protons in the thing you think you are touching, but there is no actual contact. The electrons and protons in you body, becoming agitated by nearness to the other electrons and protons are distrubed, and transmit a distrubance along you nerves to the brain; the effect in the brain is what is necessary to your sensation of contact, and by suitable experiments this sensation can be made quite deeptive. The elecetrons and protons themselves, however, are only a crude first approximation, a way of collecting into a bundle either trains of waves or the statistical probabilites of various different kinds of events. Thus matter has become althogether too ghostly to be used as an adquate stick with which to beat the mind. Matter in motion, which used to seem so unquestionable, turns out to be a concept quite inadequate for the needs of physics.
1 vote jezzaboogie | Oct 17, 2007 |
This is the book that, if politicians would read it, might improve the world ( )
2 vote stapels | Aug 16, 2007 |
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» Add other authors (6 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Russell, Bertrandprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Gottlieb, AnthonyForewordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Woodhouse, HowardIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0415325064, Paperback)

Intolerance and bigotry lie at the heart of all human suffering. So claims Bertrand Russell at the outset of In Praise of Idleness, a collection of essays in which he espouses the virtues of cool reflection and free enquiry; a voice of calm in a world of maddening unreason. From a devastating critique of the ancestry of fascism to a vehement defence of 'useless' knowledge, with consideration given to everything from insect pests to the human soul, this is a tour de force that only Bertrand Russell could perform.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:05:38 -0400)

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