What is the Value of Philosophy?
Classic Philosophical Questions Part 2 - The Value and Methods of Philosophy
Bertrand Russell, from The Problems of Philosophy
Kem Stone - 11 August 2007
Although this is a very short selection, it is densely packed with provocative ideas to consider regarding the value
of philosophical inquiry.  Bertrand Russell is attempting to present a defence against the claim made by the
“practical” people who believe that philosophy is little more than “useless trifling, hair-splitting distinctions, and
controversies on matters concerning which knowledge is impossible” (36).  In essence his claim is something of an
analogy—that exercise is to the goods of the body as philosophy is to the goods of the mind.

He suggests that many of those who feel that philosophy is useless suffer from a misconception as to its purposes,
comparing it to other sciences such as mathematics or physics, where definite knowledge is attainable and you can
trace the growth in the number of definite truths ascertained over the years in these various fields of study.  But
philosophy, he says, is not about discovering definite truths.  In fact, once a definite truth has been discovered it
ceases to be philosophy and becomes part of another science, as is the case in fields such as astronomy and
psychology.  It is not the answers but the questions that are important, Russell believes, because “however slight
may be the hope of discovering an answer, it is part of the business of philosophy to continue the consideration of
such questions, to make us aware of their importance, to examine all the approaches to them, and to keep alive
that speculative interest in the universe which is apt to be killed by confining ourselves to definitely ascertainable
knowledge” (37).

It is worth considering the disadvantage of limiting our inquiries to “definitely ascertainable knowledge” as this
goes to the heart of the issue of what gives philosophy its value.  Many would quote Ludwig Wittgenstein
(mistaking his meaning in doing so) and say that “whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must be silent” and limit
ourselves to asking only the questions for which definite answers can be reached.  The
size of the universe, for
instance, is a legitimate subject for study, but the purpose of its existence is not.  Yet if we do not allow ourselves
to consider what purpose if any belongs to the universe, it seems clear that we lose something essential when it
comes to our appreciation of that universe.  Philosophy, says Russell, “while diminishing our feeling of certainty as
to what things are…greatly increases our knowledge as to what they may be” (38).

This leads to Russell’s next point, which has to do with the acquisition of knowledge as an enlargement of the
Self.  All acquisition of knowledge enlarges the Self according to Russell, as we can see in the illustration of
considering the purpose of the universe.  If I force myself to be content with the fact that the universe exists and
never consider whether it has a deeper nature or what this nature may be, my own self-perception remains
stagnant.  I am a thing that exists, and that is where it ends.  But if I consider that I may exist because of the will of
some higher power, or that my individual existence is fundamentally tied to the existence of all things in the
universe at the deepest of levels, I allow for an infinite enlargement of my own perception of Self.

Russell also asserts that “this enlargement is best attained when it is not directly sought” (38).  If we limit ourselves
in our search for answers to what we desire to be true or what already fits into our preconceived notions of truth,
the enlargement of Self is stunted.  Thus philosophy, when approached correctly, views everything impartially,
adapting itself to outside circumstances rather than adapting its perception of outside circumstances to fit with its
existing prejudices.

And this is ultimately the greatest value that philosophy has to offer.  “The mind which has become accustomed to
the freedom and impartiality of philosophic contemplation will preserve something of the same freedom and
impartiality in the world of action and emotion….The impartiality which, in contemplation, is the unalloyed desire
for truth, is the very same quality which, in action, is justice, and in emotion is that universal love which can be
given to all, and not only to those who are judged useful or admirable” (39).  Here is where philosophy finally
takes on
practical value in Russell’s eyes, because in applying the ideals of philosophic contemplation to the
world of action, it leads to justice; and to the world of emotion, to universal love.

I believe this is the most essential point from this passage, so I will endeavour to defend this claim in my own
words.  When we approach philosophical issues properly, we adapt our notions of truth to the reality we observe,
rather than adapting our perceptions of reality to our own pre-existing notions of truth.  This inevitably requires the
suspension of judgment and an open mind, qualities which are the antithesis of ignorance and self-aggrandisement.  
If we apply these qualities to matters which are considered to lie outside the realm of philosophy, we tend to
arrive at resolutions to conflicts which maximize justice, as we consider these matters objectively and without pre-
existing prejudices.  And if we celebrate these qualities in the realm of emotion, our objectivity and willingness to
accept other points of view leads us away from prejudice towards the point of view which Russell designates as
“universal love.”  I find these to be strong claims and I credit Russell with such a practical and eloquent assertion
of these very tangible benefits that humanity as a whole gleans from philosophy.

However, there is one claim made by Russell in this section which I am not so quick to accept, and that is his
dismissal of all philosophies which assimilate the universe to human perception.  “There is a widespread
philosophical tendency toward the view which tells us that man is the measure of all things, that truth is man-made,
that space and time and the world of universals are properties of the mind, and that, if there be anything not
created by the mind, it is unknowable and of no account for us.  This view, if our previous discussions were
correct, is untrue; but in addition to being untrue, it has the effect of robbing philosophic contemplation of all that
gives it value, since it fetters contemplation to Self” (39).

I have not read Russell’s
The Problems of Philosophy in its entirety, so I can not respond to the specific
arguments he makes against these types of philosophical systems, but at this point I am not ready to dismiss the
philosophies which limit their claims to explaining all things in terms of mankind and human perception.  I believe
there is merit in the notion that man is the measure of all things, as we must accept the fact that whatever the scope
of our thoughts may be, they are irrevocably confined to the human mind, and indeed all of the ideas we have ever
been exposed to have come from human minds as well.  It is probably not the case that reality
stems from human
thought, but I find it essential to maintain recognition of the basic truth that we can know nothing outside the realm
of human thought.  That no matter how absolutely true any of the knowledge we ascertain seems to be, we must
leave room for the possibility that it may only be true when considered from a human point of view.

The value of this type of philosophy is the same as the value that Russell here advocates, and I suspect that my
objection to his claim may only result from a misunderstanding on my part as to his true meaning.  But if we are to
value open-mindedness towards all possibilities, we must also leave room for the possibility that nothing exists
outside of human perception, as misguided and egocentric as such a proposition may seem.  Essentially, the value
of philosophy as I see it and as Russell here suggests, is to accept that everything we know
may be wrong, and in
accepting this to maintain an appropriate modesty as to the veracity of all our beliefs, including those we cherish
most.