The Problems of Philosophy
By Bertrand Russell
Review by Martha (Maths and Philosophy)
The Problems of Philosophy is the book that most inspired me to study Philosophy at university. Bertrand Russell was a Philosopher and in this book he presents several problems that arise within the field, which invites you to question the solutions Russell presents, which is a really useful skill for your degree. Many of the ideas he presents are central to all kinds of philosophy, and it was great at introducing me to concepts that underpin a lot of philosophy, as well as providing a really good overview of the subject.
The book is mainly concerned with epistemology (philosophical beliefs about knowledge). It initially addresses the common philosophical question of whether anything is real, if we can believe anything that we experience to be really happening. It is something that a lot of people jokingly question; however, Russell’s analysis makes the problem less of a hypothetical situation and more of a genuine explanation of the world that we experience, or at least think we do.
I think the idea that most grabbed me was Russell’s categorisation of knowledge. He describes knowledge by acquaintance, which is knowledge of things you have direct experience of, for example, the knowledge of the qualities that the table in front of me has, and knowledge by description, which is knowledge of things that we are not directly acquainted with, like my knowledge that the Queen of England exists, even though I am not acquainted with her. He distinguishes these kinds of knowledge of “things” from more logical or intuitive knowledge of “truths”.
In his exploration of knowledge of truths, he explores the principle of induction, which throws into doubt the findings of science in a simple, but undeniably effective way. He later raises the question of mathematical truths, addressing the question of how pure mathematics is possible, which dates back to philosophers such as Emmanuel Kant. It was this chapter which really demonstrated the implications of philosophy within maths showing the possibilities of studying the’ two in combination. Russell’s background in mathematics means his views about mathematical truth are well-founded and given from a familiar perspective.
He ends the short volume with a discussion on the limits and purpose of philosophy, suggesting that the problems and uncertainties are very much the point of studying it. It allows us to criticise and argue, as well as providing a thorough exploration of the world we live in that isn’t like the sciences, limited to physical existence.
I enjoyed The Problems of Philosophy immensely; the content is both fascinating and logical, while the way Russell presents his ideas is clear, concise, and assumes no previous knowledge of the subject. I would recommend this to anyone, but especially those interested in philosophy’s overlap with mathematics and the sciences.
The Problems of Philosophy by Bertrand Russell