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Sceptical Essays by Bertrand Russell

Sceptical Essays (original 1928; edition 1960)

by Bertrand Russell

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366347,228 (4.04)1
"With these words Bertrand Russell introduces what is indeed a revolutionary book. Taking as his starting point the irrationality of the world, he offers by contrast something 'wildly paradoxical and subversive' - a belief that reason should determine human actions. Unwittingly foreseeing the horrors that resulted in the ensuing years from the irrational passions of religious and political beliefs, it is no wonder that Sceptical Essays has never been out of print since its first publication 1928." "Today, besieged as we are by the numbing onslaught of twenty-first-century capitalism, Russell's defence of scepticism and independence of mind is as timely as ever. In clear, engaging prose, he guides us through the key philosophical issues that affect our daily life - freedom, happiness, emotions, ethics and beliefs - and offers no-nonsense advice. What would be the effect, he asks his readers with playful irony, 'of a spread of rational scepticism?'"--BOOK JACKET.… (more)
Title:Sceptical Essays
Authors:Bertrand Russell
Info:Rivers Oram Press/Pandora (1960), Paperback
Collections:Your library
Tags:philosophy, essays, religion, unread

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Sceptical Essays by Bertrand Russell (1928)



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People who like Russell, like Russell! See what Russell thought were foundational issues in HIS time. He was 'anti-nuke'
  vegetarian | Oct 10, 2011 |
Bertrand Russell

Sceptical Essays

Routledge Classics, Paperback, 2008.

8vo. xiii+225 pp. Preface to Routledge Classics Edition by John Gray, 2004 [ix-xiii].

First published, 1928.
First published in Routledge Classics, 2004.


Preface to the Routledge Classics Edition

1. Introduction: On the Value of Scepticism
2. Dreams and Facts
3. Is Science Superstitious?
4. Can Men be Rational?
5. Philosophy in the Twentieth Century
6. Machines and the Emotions
7. Behaviourism and Values
8. Eastern and Western Ideals of Happiness
9. The Harm that Good Men Do
10. The Recrudescence of Puritanism
11. The Need for Political Scepticism
12. Free Thought and Official Propaganda
13. Freedom in Society
14. Freedom Versus Authority in Education
15. Psychology and Politics
16. The Danger of Creed Wars
17. Some Prospects: Cheerful and Otherwise



This is going to be the shortest review I have ever written. For all that a reviewer can tell you about Sceptical Essays by Bertrand Russell is ''Read it!''

I am joking, of course. Such indolence will not do. But, as every great book, Sceptical Essays must be experienced on a very personal level, without any interference from outside and with the active participation of all selves you can muster. Moreover, it is so incredibly rich in stirring passages, memorable quotes and food for reflection on myriad of subjects, that one doesn't really know where to start. Perhaps it is best to begin with the preface by John Gray, written for the Routledge Classics Edition in 2004 and a most remarkable example how to collect more superfluous material in five pages than there is in 200 of Lord Russell. Towards the end Mr Gray is at his absolute best:

In his celebrated memoir, My Early Beliefs, Maynard Keynes wrote on Russell that he believed two 'ludicrously incompatible beliefs: on the one hand he believed that all the problems of the world stemmed from conducting human affairs in a most irrational way; on the other hand the solution was simple, since all we had to do was to behave rationally.' It is an acute observation, but I do not think it gets to the bottom of what is wrong with Russell's rationalism. The difficulty is not that he overestimated the degree to which human beings can be reasonable. It is that on his own account reason is powerless.

I do not know who Maynard Keynes is, but if his ''celebrated memoirs'' is full of such ''acute observations'' (to be read ''gross oversimplifications''), I am all the better for having never read them. Perhaps Mr Keynes made an attempt to be witty; to my mind, he failed rather miserably in this endeavour. Extremely broadly speaking, I daresay the ludicrous statement of Mr Keynes may be claimed to have some tiny piece of truth in it. But despite my still very limited familiarity with Bertrand Russell, I am already convinced that his opinions of mankind and rationality are infinitely more complex and subtle than that.

As for Mr Gray's wise words, I wish he had debased himself to tell us what is it that can save reason from its powerlessness. Character? Human beings with character are not in the majority, to be sure, but they still seem to me to greatly outnumber those with any traces of reason inside their heads. Indeed, though it does sound presumptuous of me to disagree with such formidable Russell expert as Mr Gray, I would say that if there was anything wrong with Lord Russell's rationalism, it was precisely that he did overestimate the degree to which human beings can be rational. But that's probably an oversimplification, too.

I have to say, though, that some of Mr Gray's remarks are very intriguing indeed. My favourite is that Bertrand Russell's immense admiration for Joseph Conrad surely stemmed, at least partly, from the conviction that ''Conrad's sceptical fatalism was a truer account of human life than his own troubled belief in reason and science.'' I am not sure about the certainty of this conjecture as much as Mr Gray is, but his point is one to ponder over carefully. It is also, together with Russell's attitude, an excellent recommendation to have another look at the works of Joseph Conrad, a writer with whom I am currently not on speaking terms.

It is not hard to see why Sceptical Essays, first published in 1928, has never been out of print. It is concerned exclusively with timeless problems like rationality and irrationality, freedom and war, society and the individual; what historical times you may choose for your examples is totally irrelevant. The volume consists of 17 beautifully written and exceptionally thought-provoking essays. The worst of them - perhaps "Dreams and Facts" and "Psychology and Politics" - can occasionally have muddled passages and on the whole are just good; the others consistently range between ''very good'' and ''downright brilliant''.

But be warned: this book, though eminently readable, is no easy read; if you want an easy read, then read Dan Brown and Jackie Collins; they are huge fun and require no mental effort whatsoever. I have of course absolutely nothing against such light writers who write light books - I do read them from time to time myself, and with great pleasure indeed - but it must be said that Bertrand Russell in general, and this book in particular, is in entirely different category. Reading Lord Russell does require steady concentration and all mental effort one is capable of. This is especially true of Sceptical Essays where his legendary wit, though by no means missing, is certainly less often encountered than in some of his other so called ''popular'' writings. This is a dead serious book that must be read slowly, carefully and thoughtfully, preferably by serious people who do not regard their own opinions as the only right ones in existence.

Sceptical Essays is so incredibly rich in ideas, hypotheses, theories, speculations and reflections worth pondering over, that I really am baffled how to do justice to the book with few paragraphs of reasonable length. So let me start from the beginning - again. Lord Russell's first essay, "Introduction: On the Value of Scepticism"*, is a masterpiece of impeccable structure, transparent clarity and huge dose of common sense. It is not for nothing that we find the word ''introduction'' here, nor is the title of the book without a great deal of significance. Indeed, Sceptical Essays may be viewed, not as a collection of essays, but as a book with 17 chapters dedicated to a state of human mind that was especially dear to Lord Russell: rational scepticism. His introductory chapter cannot possibly be bettered, so an extensive quote is due here. (And its first paragraph is one of the rare, and thus all the more priceless, examples of Russell's wit in the book.):

I wish to propose a doctrine which may, I fear, appear wildly paradoxical and subversive. The doctrine in question is this: that it is undesirable to believe a proposition when there is no ground whatever for supposing it true. I must, of course, admit that if such an opinion became common it would completely transform our social life and our political system; since both are at present faultless, this must weigh against it. I am also aware (what is more serious) that it would tend to diminish the incomes of clairvoyants, bookmakers, bishops, and others who live on the irrational hopes of those who have done nothing to deserve good fortune here or hereafter. In spite of these grave arguments, I maintain that a case can be made out of my paradox, and I shall try to set it forth.
The scepticism that I advocate amounts only to this: (1) that when the experts are agreed, the opposite opinion cannot be held to be certain; (2) that when they are not agreed, no opinion can be regarded as certain by a non-expert; and (3) that when they all hold that no sufficient grounds for a positive opinion exist, the ordinary man would do well to suspend his judgment.

These propositions may seem mild, yet, if accepted, they would absolutely revolutionize human life.

The opinions for which people are willing to fight and persecute all belong to one of the three classes which this scepticism condemns. When there are rational grounds for an opinion, people are content to set them forth and wait for them to operate. In such cases, people do not hold their opinions with passion; they hold them calmly, and set forth their reasons quietly. The opinions that are held with passion are always those for which no good ground exists; indeed the passion is the measure of the holder’s lack of rational conviction. Opinions in politics and religion are almost always held passionately.

What would be the effect of a spread of rational scepticism? Human events spring from passions, which generate systems of attendant myths. Psychoanalysts have studied the individual manifestations of this process in lunatics, certified and uncertified.
The part played by intellectual factors in human behaviour is a matter as to which there is much disagreement among psychologists. There are two quite distinct questions: (1) how far are beliefs operative as causes of actions? (2) how far are beliefs derived from logically adequate evidence, or capable of being so derived? On both questions, psychologists are agreed in giving a much smaller place to the intellectual factors than the plain man would give, but within this general agreement there is room for considerable differences of degree.

These are the propositions Lord Russell argues about and the questions he tries to answer in the course of this compelling introduction as well as pretty much throughout the whole book. The first three essays and some of the later ones (like The Need for Political Scepticism) are entirely dedicated to the chances of mankind to establish any degree of rational behaviour and sceptical outlook, but the ghost of rational scepticism pervades more or less all of the essays, just like the main theme in a symphonic poem by Franz Liszt always reminds of itself appearing in many different transformations.

"Is Science Superstitious?" and "Can Men be Rational?" are probably the pivotal essays in the book; they are certainly among the most provocative ones. The link between the two pieces may not at first sight be obvious, but it becomes so when Bertrand Russell states with his usual straightforwardness that rationality is firmly based on acquiring a scientific outlook or, in other words, the ability to consider a problem from all points of view and decide a course of action on all existing evidence. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Lord Russell, which many people completely miss, is the fact that his opinions, like everything in life indeed, are never all black or all white; they always are but shades of grey.

For my part, I do think Bertrand Russell does overestimate the degree to which people are, or can possibly be, reasonable, but I imagine it would be devilishly hard to come up with better argumentation than his; and that notion of mine is most probably very far from rational anyway. On the other hand, I am pretty sure Lord Russell would have been the first to change any of his opinions if strong evidence for the opposite position appears. Indeed, he did so a number of times during his life and was often criticised. But I think it asks just as much courage to change your opinion than to maintain it; nay, the former does require even more courage for it is always coupled with a confession that you have been wrong.

Quite apart from matters of somewhat firm disagreement, Bertrand Russell is very often uncannily persuasive. Sometimes, indeed, certain of his opinions may suddenly startle one - before jumping from the pages immediately afterwards and hitting him with great force on the face. So happened when I read his claim that science is largely governed by irrational passions. After my exasperation subsided, I did not need much reflection to agree completely with Bertrand Russell. This most probably was the case in his time; it certainly is today. Certain amount of passion and enthusiasm are indispensable for science, and scientists in all fields would surely do well to remember the words of St Augustine that to understand one must first believe. But both passion and enthusiasm have one terrible side effect: they cloud the judgment. So much for rational weighing of scientific evidence - and that's why these no doubt admirable qualities must be severely limited. Sadly, they are currently not; indeed, due to the appallingly commercial character of science, the extent of these factors is probably greater than it was in Russell's times.

"Free Thought and Official Propaganda" is beyond any doubt one of the finest essays in the book. Originally a Moncure Conway lecture, delivered in London and published as a pamphlet in 1922, the essay well deserves to be one of the most anthologised among Russell's works - which indeed it is. Again I am struck by the extraordinary degree of structure and lucidity which the prose of this man seems to achieve quite effortlessly and uncommonly often.

Bertrand Russell starts, as he often does, with definition of the various types of free thought. They are chiefly two, actually: a narrower sense concerned with the so called ''free thinkers'' who do not accept any kind of religious dogma, and of which Lord Russell himself was a primary example of course, but he is here concerned mostly with the other type of ''free thought'', which is not so easy to define but it is of even greater importance. Having started from this rather simple division, Bertrand Russell goes on to elaborate more and more on this second kind of free thought, turning the essay into a most absorbing experience without losing for a single sentence neither his lucidity nor his sense of structure.

In a nutshell, a free thought is the one which is free from three main dangers society usually inflicts on it: legal penalties, economical penalties and distortion of evidence. As always, Lord Russell supports his opinions with solid arguments and shows how easily the first type of free thought may lead to prevention of the second. He gives three examples from his own life when agnosticism interfered with freedom. Here is the first one:

The first incident belongs to a very early stage in my life. My father was a Freethinker, but died when I was only three years old. Wishing me to be brought up without superstition, he appointed two Freethinkers as my guardians. The Courts, however, set aside his will, and had me educated in the Christian faith. I am afraid the result was disappointing, but that was not the fault of the law. If he had directed that I should be educated as a Christadelphian or a Muggletonian or a Seventh-Day Adventist, the Courts would not have dreamed of objecting. A parent has a right to ordain that any imaginable superstition shall be instilled into his children after his death, but has not the right to say that they shall be kept free from superstition if possible.

Bertrand Russell himself was not accepted in the British parliament because of his agnosticism in 1910, and shortly afterwards was not made a Fellow of Trinity College for the same reason. In 1916 he was dismissed from this august educational institution for another grave sin: pacifism.

Of course there is much more in "Free Thought and Official Propaganda" than that. The essay makes an especially fascinating read together with the other pieces chiefly concerned with various kinds of freedom. According to Bertrand Russell one of the most important factors for a rational outlook to flourish is freedom of thought, freedom of inquiry and, above all, freedom of opinion. Contrary to William James' ''will to believe'', Lord Russell advocates ''the will to doubt''. Although I do think that in general he overestimates both the degree of rationality mankind as a whole is capable of - as well as the power of psychology which, if a science at all, is certainly far from certain in its conclusions, let alone infallible - Bertrand Russell's ultimate view is much more balanced and realistic than it might seem at first glance. Again from "Free Thought and Official Propaganda":

If it is admitted that a condition of rational doubt would be desirable, it becomes important to inquire how it comes about that there is so much irrational certainty in the world. A great deal of this is due to the inherent irrationality and credulity of average human nature. But this seed of intellectual original sin is nourished and fostered by other agencies, among which three play the chief part - namely, education, propaganda, and economic pressure.

I surmise Lord Russell would have been pleased to see how far we have gone towards free thought and free opinion - everybody is absolutely free to talk the most impossible rubbish and no one turns a hair - but the great philosopher might also have been saddened to see how many of today's free opinions are, not just irrational, but devoid of elementary intelligence as well. And I think his three reasons still reign supreme.

Some of the Sceptical Essays are on the other side of the barricade, so to say, that is they take a closer look at the terrible consequences of irrationality. The fiendishly sarcastic yet thought-provoking "The Harm that Good Men Do" and the perceptive yet amusing "The Recrudescence of Puritanism" are the best examples in this category. Others are mainly concerned with politics, as a field where pretty much all opinions are irrational and held with a good deal of passion, and with war as another fine example of human irrationality, fanaticism and folly.

War and politics, indeed, are to be found in one way or another in almost all of the essays. They reach their apogee in last two pieces. "The Danger of Creed Wars" is a powerful exploration of that epitome of human lunacy - war - and effectively predicts the two creed wars which followed some years later, both devastating in their own way: the Second World War and the Cold War. "Some Prospects: Cheerful and Otherwise" is entirely dedicated to Bertrand Russell's views on World authority, not a government perhaps, as he says, but some body of financiers to control the world wealth and resources.

Here Lord Russell is far less prescient indeed. Almost a century later such World authority seems to me as great an utopia as ever, nor did the family disintegrated to the degree he thought it would. But when he predicted the decay of art he was not so wide of the mark after all; if the dance music of his time seemed lacking in value, I am curious what he would have said of today's ''music'' styles like rap or house. It is a tribute to Lord Russell's intelligence, erudition and writing skill that even at his most absurd speculations he remains perfectly readable and immensely stimulating.

In his marvellous introductory essay Bertrand Russell, quoting Shakespeare, says that in every one of us three different persons coexist: a lover, a poet and a lunatic. The difficult question is how to retain the first two and restrict as much as possible the third one. Complete rationality of existence is surely not the right way: life would become intolerably dull. Indeed, all the three fellows above do have something to do with irrational passions. Bertrand Russell is convinced that certain of our activities, like art and love, may well be left to passion - indeed if they are to retain their character and any significance at all, they must be. Rationality and scepticism should concern themselves with the sources of envy, malice and, ultimately, hate in human nature and society, sources like competition, patriotism and war.

So I wonder again. Had he been alive today, what on earth would he have written? Have we made any progress towards a widely accepted rational scepticism since Sceptical Essays was first published? I wish I could say ''yes'' - but I can't. Politics are still governed by irrational passions and odious hypocrisy. We are still living on a planet with more than enough nuclear weapons to destroy it completely. We are still living on a verge of a Third World War which almost certainly will be the end of mankind. It is frightfully simple: tomorrow some lunatic will press the button in one part of the world, another lunatic in another part would love to prove that he is no mean button operator himself, and a great fun will take place. Until then international terrorism will have to satisfy the bloodthirsty madness of mankind. Though largely an ideal impossible to attain, it is not hard to see that what Lord Russell proposes will, if not abolish, at all events reduce the huge amount of the wretched emotion all this is based upon: hate.

Nowadays hate is modern, especially on national level. Perhaps Oscar Wilde was not so wide of the mark when he once said that patriotism is virtue of the vicious. Because patriotism is what you find but seldom. Nationalism is the name of the game today. I remember some time ago the considerable surprise in my native country when, after national elections, a fanatically nationalistic party turned out to have gathered enough votes to enter the Parliament. I have seen people in my own country filled with such hatred for Muslims which is completely out of any proportion. I have known personally people who are filled with such hate for America and everything American that I have felt sick while listening to their tirades. I have heard with my own ears opinions that the Americans did deserve September 11th. I have known people whose first association of German culture is Adolf Hitler.

Well, the Americans are certainly stupid, vain and conceited - but I'll be damned if I can see why they should be regarded as more stupid, more vain or more conceited than any other nation. By all means, few Muslims are terrorists who kill innocent people but so were many Christians when Christianity was as young as the Islam is now; at any rate, however, these people have nothing to do with those billion and a half who are committed but peaceful Muslims. If you condone September 11th, what makes you better than those, whoever they were, who caused that act of lunacy? Or better than those who died there? Certainly, Adolf Hitler is an extremely important person historically, but what has he to do with the German culture? Ah, yes, he was a painter, and not a bad one at that. Perhaps we should blame the Second World War on the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna for twice rejecting the painting aspirations of the future Führer?

The idiocy of such statements is quite obvious. So is the fact that it does not take much reason and common sense to see that idiocy, and the danger it leads to. Hate and haters are rather amusing as long as they are isolated individuals with no power. Sooner or later this will change. And then the story will end. No matter how appealing it may look, I cannot bring myself to believe that, human nature as it is, Bertrand Russell's rational scepticism worldwide will ever be anything else but an utopian ideal. May I be wrong.

All the same, I can ramble on like this until the Second Coming or the Third World War. The best thing I can say about Lord Russell's Sceptical Essays remain those two short words accompanied by a exclamation mark. Read it!


* This is one of the three essays by Bertrand Russell included by Somerset Maugham in his anthology Traveller's Library (1933). For once, Maugham's selection is impeccable: the piece is brilliantly written and can always be re-read with pleasure and profit. The other two essays he chose are the excellent Eastern and Western Ideals of Happiness (also from Sceptical Essays) and the perfectly mediocre, and inexplicably famous, A Free Man's Worship (1903). ( )
2 vote Waldstein | Oct 3, 2010 |
This the first of Russell's works I have read.

In some ways it is hard to believe they were written in the 1920's - in other ways e.g. politically incorrect language, it is all too obvious.

Thought-provoking and full of quotable quotes. In fact it was so tempting to give you some examples of this I would have in fact ended up quoting large parts of the whole book - which actually explains the book cover which depicts a page of text which has been completely highlighted by hand.

Russell makes the case for empiricism and rationality, pointing out that they work and recommending their use in parts of human life where they rarely seem to be applied even today. In particular his comments about books on alternative medicine, which evidence shows doesn't work, being published and selling well whilst books which contain the facts and warnings about dangerous alternative medicines can't even get a publisher.

Razor sharp wit abounds, some so sharp that you think he has missed his target (the candles remain in one piece and still alight after the rapier slash) but when you read on he hits the mark full on (and the still lighted top half of the candles drop to the floor).

Some of his arguments had this kind of delayed impact on me as well. His talk about "a unifying world power" is a classic example of what I mean. By the description alone his suggestion seems naive and silly but as you read on and he develops his arguments he doesn't seem that far away from where we are now.

I read this book in between burst of the last Harry Potter - I was sharing with my wife - and this seems a pretty good way to read it. To attempt it all at once may not give you chance to properly mentally digest the wide range of topics covered.

Overall this is worth the effort, and by if you intersperse it with something in a lighter vein like I accidentally did then it hardly seems like an effort at all.

3.5 out of 5 stars ( )
1 vote psiloiordinary | Aug 15, 2007 |
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Aimer et penser: c'est la véritable vie des esprits. (Voltaire)
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Vorrei proporre alla benevola considerazione del lettore una teoria che potrà forse sembrare paradossale e sovversiva. La teoria è questa: che sarebbe opportuno non prestar fede a una proposizione fino a quando non vi sia un fondato motivo per supporla vera.
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