Bertrand Russell - Philosophy, Ethics and Learning
Bertrand Russell (1872-1970)
English philosopher (pictured right), mathematician and grandson of the British prime minister, Lord
His most famous book
Principia Mathematica (1910)
(co-written with another English philosopher, Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947) -
What did he say about ethics and learning?
1. Know what something really means
Think what words really mean before you use them.
This idea of Russell’s is now known as “analytic philosophy” and was used by a group of
intellectuals called the Vienna Circle in the 1920’s and 30’s, led by Moritz
Schlick (1882-1936) - pictured right.
They said you must prove the truth of anything by experience and observation (the “principle of verifiability”),
later also adopted by Karl
Popper (pictured right below).
2. Question existing knowledge
a) never conceal the truth
Accept truth and never fear it.
b) support your beliefs with evidence and sound argument
Never blindly accept what others believe or think.
“The stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt”, he said.
c) don’t be afraid to be different
(because all accepted beliefs were once considered to be false).
3. Love learning
Be passionate about everything you do, particularly the search for
He discovered his love for mathematics at the age of 11, and then philosophy took over in his 30’s.
4. Don’t be self-centred
The happiest people:
- forget themselves and their weaknesses.
- love learning (see point 3)
- give up some things they want.
- find joy in giving and receiving from friendships and helping
“The good life is one inspired by love and guided by knowledge”, he said.
5. Live by your principles
Russell said three principles ruled his life:
- “the longing for love”
- “the search for knowledge”
- “unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind ”.
Do what you think is right (not what other people tell you) and have the courage to
He actively opposed nuclear weapons and war.
His opposition to the First World War led to his imprisonment and dismissal from his lecturer’s job at
Your work is important but shouldn’t stop you taking time off.
Make sure you do something useful in your leisure (like education and the arts) , and this
will help your work.
“Immense harm is caused by the belief that work is virtuous”, he said
7. Overcome your problems
Difficulties, fear and despair are inevitable but overcoming them will give you happiness
and peace of mind.
Key quotes on work and
Immense harm is caused by the belief that work is virtuous
The morality of work is the morality of slaves
To be able to fill leisure intelligently is the last product of
Key quotes on
The desire to understand the world and the desire to reform it are the two great engines of progress.
Change is indubitable, whereas progress is a matter of controversy.
Key quote on love
To fear love is to fear life, and those who fear life are already three parts dead.
Key quote on fear and
Fear is the main source of superstition, and one of the main sources of cruelty. To conquer fear is the
beginning of wisdom
Key quote on influencing
To save the world requires faith and courage: faith in reason and courage to proclaim what reason shows to be
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The only thing that will redeem mankind is co-operation.
Key quote on God and
The Christian religion ... has been and still is the principal enemy of moral progress in the world.
Key quote on
Of all forms of caution, caution in love is perhaps the most fatal to true happiness.
The secret of happiness is this: let your interests be as wide as possible and let your reactions to the things
and persons who interest you be as far as possible friendly rather than hostile.
Key quote on knowledge
What men really want is not knowledge but certainty.
Key quote on
We have, in fact, two kinds of morality side by side: one which we preach but do not practise, and another which
we practise but seldom preach.