Sceptical Essays

by Bertrand Russell. New York: W. W. Norton & Co. 1928. 12mo. 256 pp. $2.50.
As most readers know, Bertrand Russell divides his time between original work and popularization. The present volume, composed of seventeen essays which appear to have been written at various times and for various purposes, represents one of his efforts in the latter direction. The subjects are diverse — ’Is Science Superstitious?’ ‘The Harm That Good Men Do,’ ‘ Philosophy in the Twentieth Century,’ and so forth —and the book gets such unity as it has from the personality of the author. One will not find in it any complete or orderly development of a philosophy, but one will find such a philosophy implied in the attitudes taken toward various subjects.
Mr. Russell is a rationalist, not because he adheres to any set of ‘common sense’ opinions, but because he believes in reason as the only possible instrument for the solution of human problems, and the vigor of his style is the expression of his irritation with a world which refuses to behave in a rational manner. ’Those,’ he says, ‘who in principle oppose birth control are either incapable of arithmetic or else in favor of war, pestilence, and famine as permanent features of human life,’and between the lines of such statements one may read the near despair of a man who feels that though they are completely unanswerable yet a very considerable part of humanity will blandly disregard them. As a sceptic he is prepared to doubt any specific conclusion of scientific thought, but as a rationalist he refuses to believe that any other method can challenge that of rationality and science. He is ready to abandon the naïve materialism of the nineteenth century, but he will have no traffic with anything like the Bergsonian ‘Intuition’ which proposes to thrust reason aside, and in the name of candor and caution he calls a halt to the speculations of the more enthusiastic of the contemporary philosophers of science who run far ahead of their evidence in their eagerness to find once more a place for God in the universe.
Most of the essays in the present volume are concerned quite as much with the social well-being of humanity as they are with that abstraction called Truth, and it is interesting to note the frequency with which Mr. Russell falls back upon the conviction that an intelligent self-interest on the part of the individual would be sufficient to solve most of the problems with which civilization is faced. In one essay he remarks that ‘in an ordered community it is very rarely to a man’s interest to do anything which is very harmful to others,’ and in his Introduction he says further, while speaking of envy and patriotism, ‘Our unconscious is more malevolent than it pays us to be. ... It [a rational morality] could be realized to-morrow if men would learn to pursue their own happiness rather than the misery of others. This is no impossibly austere morality, yet its adoption would turn our earth into a paradise.’
Now this faith is very much like that faith in ‘enlightened selfishness’ which soothed so many consciences during the Industrial Revolution in England and which drove Carlyle to the very height of his fury. There are, as a matter of fact, two objections to be raised to it: first, that the hope of cultivating in the majority of mankind any ‘enlightened selfishness’ so extremely enlightened as it would need to be is, in itself, Utopian; and, second, that such selfishness would have to be not only more enlightened but also more farseeing’—more ready to sacrifice the immediate good to the future than any very likely to be born very soon in a creature as defective as man in his present state. But, unlikely as salvation in this fashion may be, a pessimist, at least, may be permitted to affirm that he thinks it as likely as any other, even if he feels it necessary to add that that modern world which permitted the most destructive war in history was the world which had a better opportunity than any had ever had before it to realize the extent of its folly.
As hinted above, Sceptical Essays is an effort to popularize the ideas of its author rather than an effort to add to them. It contains nothing which will surprise those already familiar with his writings, but it bears everywhere the stamp of his penetrating and vivacious mind.