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The Problems of Philosophy av Bertrand…

The Problems of Philosophy (urspr publ 1912; utgåvan 1959)

av Bertrand Russell (Författare)

MedlemmarRecensionerPopularitetGenomsnittligt betygOmnämnanden
2,715203,799 (3.8)18
Accessible, thought-provoking study by Nobel Prize-winner considers distinction between appearance and reality, existence and nature of matter, idealism, inductive logic, intuitive knowledge, many other stimulating subjects.
Titel:The Problems of Philosophy
Författare:Bertrand Russell (Författare)
Info:Oxford University Press (1959), 176 pages
Samlingar:Ditt bibliotek


Filosofins problem av Bertrand Russell (1912)



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  Murtra | Jan 5, 2021 |
Definitely a brain-builder. ( )
  DanielSTJ | Oct 12, 2020 |
Bertrand Russell

The Problems of Philosophy

Dover, Paperback, 1999.

8vo. iv+121 pp. Reprint of the First Edition. Preface by Bertrand Russell, 1912 [iv].

First published, 1912.



Chapter I: Appearance and Reality
Chapter II: The Existence of Matter
Chapter III: The Nature of Matter
Chapter IV: Idealism
Chapter V: Knowledge by Acquaintance and Knowledge by Description
Chapter VI: On Induction
Chapter VII: On Our Knowledge of General Principles
Chapter VIII: How a priori Knowledge is Possible
Chapter IX: The World of Universals
Chapter X: On Our Knowledge of Universals
Chapter XI: On Intuitive Knowledge
Chapter XII: Truth and Falsehood
Chapter XIII: Knowledge, Error and Probable Opinion
Chapter XIV: The Limits of Philosophical Knowledge
Chapter XV: The Value of Philosophy

Bibliographical Note


My attitude to philosophy is ambiguous, to say the least. I believe there is something in it, perhaps something important that we should know, but I am not at all sure in this. I am wary of reading at length even the greatest philosophers from the past. Judging by excerpts, most of them strike me as conceited windbags and worthless hair-splitters. Most of them are poor writers to boot. So I’m beginning to lose philosophical faith.

If you feel more or less like that, this little book by Bertrand Russell is for you. It is a useful and concise introduction to some of the major problems of philosophy. Russell’s writing is a little wordy, repetitious and long-winded: he has yet to attain the miraculous brevity that makes his post-WWI books, whatever the subject, a joy to read. But the perfect lucidity, if not the sharp wit, is already here.

This is a relatively easy read. But don’t be fooled by the elegant writing and the slimness of the volume. The subject is abstruse and even Bertrand Russell (especially before WWI) cannot turn it into a page-turner. Much of philosophy is hair-splitting and wild-goose chasing. It says nothing. It leads nowhere. It is merely a mental exercise. It is no different than physical exercise. It keeps your mind/body fit and nimble, it gives you some pleasure perhaps, but it does no useful work. Besides, doing too much of it may well lead to serious injury.

Russell doesn’t necessarily disagree with all this. But he does think the journey is worthwhile. He makes that clear in the first and last paragraphs of the opening chapter:

Is there any knowledge in the world which is so certain that no reasonable man could doubt it? This question, which at first sight might not seem difficult, is really one of the most difficult that can be asked. When we have realized the obstacles in the way of a straightforward and confident answer, we shall be well launched on the study of philosophy – for philosophy is merely the attempt to answer such ultimate questions, not carelessly and dogmatically, as we do in ordinary life and even in the sciences, but critically, after exploring all that makes such questions puzzling, and after realizing all the vagueness and confusion that underlie our ordinary ideas.


Philosophy, if it cannot answer so many questions as we could wish, has at least the power of asking questions which increase the interest of the world, and show the strangeness and wonder lying just below the surface even in the commonest things of daily life.

If philosophy can indeed do that, then it must be reckoned as one of the chief boons conferred on humanity by the merciful Providence. But can it? It certainly could in the case of Bertrand Russell. But lesser mortals may well find the quest impossible. Indeed, most philosophers have found it so. They seem more inclined to answer the ultimate questions according to their prejudices than enduring uncertainty. When addressing each other’s theories, again with the significant exception of Russell, philosophers often remind me of the members of any modern parliament: they are supposed to make laws and rule the country, but they mostly hurl insults at the other party.

“In the following pages”, Russell says in his short preface, “I have confined myself in the main to those problems of philosophy in regard to which I thought it possible to say something positive and constructive, since merely negative criticism seemed out of place.” He is mostly concerned with theory of knowledge (or epistemology if you wish to look knowledgeable), to a lesser extent with metaphysics, and not at all with plenty of subjects much loved by many philosophers (no aesthetics, for instance, and good riddance). Despite Russell’s appeal for a positive attitude, some of his most fascinating pages are those in which he tries to refute theories cherished by his famous colleagues.

Idealism is a case in point. This curious doctrine, also known as solipsism and really suitable only for extremely self-absorbed people, postulates that mind is everything and matter is nothing. In simple words, the world is made of your thoughts, feelings, perceptions – and nothing else. It is a dream that ceases to exist with the end of your existence. Berkeley and Leibniz are the most eminent fans of this theory. Both evidently sensed that the world isn’t quite so tenuous and cannot be dismissed so easily. Both provided ingenious explanations about the independent existence of matter. Berkeley said it’s an idea in the mind of God (which makes sense only if you believe in God; if you think God is nonsense, Berkeley doesn’t make any sense either), Leibniz said it is “community of souls” (whatever that means, if it means anything).

Russell is right that idealism “is not to be dismissed as obviously absurd”, but he is actually unsuccessful in his attempt to demolish it. “No logical absurdity results from the hypothesis that the world consists of myself and my thoughts and feelings and sensations, and that everything else is mere fancy.” Ergo, the doctrine cannot be disproved by logic. All Russell can say is that idealism is extremely improbable, i.e. very unlikely to be true. People who honestly believe it would care nothing about this argument. Ay, there’s the rub; the believability factor. The last word on solipsism belongs to Somerset Maugham: “It is a perfect theory; it has but one defect; it is unbelievable.”

Russell also takes issue with Kant on knowledge (VIII) and with Hegel on metaphysics (XIV). He mentions in passing Descartes, Plato, Hume and Spinoza, but for the most part his discourse is general. So are his examples. Sometimes they are drawn from history, Shakespeare and, of course, mathematics, but they never require any prior knowledge. The fifteen short chapters are mostly easy to follow, fairly interesting and occasionally stimulating. The key words here are, of course, the adverbs.

The single take-home message from the whole book is what Russell promises in the beginning. He makes you aware how hard, if not indeed impossible, is to know something for sure. You cannot prove the sun will rise tomorrow. You can only assume it will because it has done so from time immemorial. Even the most immutable laws of physics are accepted as true simply because they have never been shown to be false. They are not so immutable, either. This is not as ludicrous as it might seem. After all, gravity was one thing after Newton and quite a different kettle of physics after Einstein. If our perception of nature is that uncertain, imagine how much more volatile human affairs must be. It is certainly difficult, but also salutary, to accustom yourself to dealing with probabilities instead of certainties. We should make the effort. The world would be a better place if we did.

“I am certain there is too much certainty in the world”, Michael Crichton once reportedly said. I quite agree and so, I believe, would Russell. He concludes with an inspiring and beautifully written defence of philosophy:

The value of philosophy is, in fact, to be sought largely in its very uncertainty. The man who has no tincture of philosophy goes through life imprisoned in the prejudices derived from common sense, from the habitual beliefs of his age or his nation, and from convictions which have grown up in his mind without the co-operation or consent of his deliberate reason. To such a man the world tends to become definite, finite, obvious; common objects rouse no questions, and unfamiliar possibilities are contemptuously rejected. As soon as we begin to philosophize, on the contrary, we find, as we saw in our opening chapters, that even the most everyday things lead to problems to which only very incomplete answers can be given. Philosophy, though unable to tell us with certainty what is the true answer to the doubts which it raises, is able to suggest many possibilities which enlarge our thoughts and free them from the tyranny of custom. Thus, while diminishing our feeling of certainty as to what things are, it greatly increases our knowledge as to what they may be; it removes the somewhat arrogant dogmatism of those who have never travelled into the region of liberating doubt, and it keeps alive our sense of wonder by showing familiar things in an unfamiliar aspect.

Apart from its utility in showing unsuspected possibilities, philosophy has a value – perhaps its chief value – through the greatness of the objects which it contemplates, and the freedom from narrow and personal aims resulting from this contemplation. The life of the instinctive man is shut up within the circle of his private interests: family and friends may be included, but the outer world is not regarded except as it may help or hinder what comes within the circle of instinctive wishes. In such a life there is something feverish and confined, in comparison with which the philosophic life is calm and free.


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. It will view its purposes and desires as parts of the whole, with the absence of insistence that results from seeing them as infinitesimal fragments in a world of which all the rest is unaffected by any one man's deeds. The impartiality which, in contemplation, is the unalloyed desire for truth, is the very same quality of mind 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. Thus contemplation enlarges not only the objects of our thoughts, but also the objects of our actions and our affections: it makes us citizens of the universe, not only of one walled city at war with all the rest. In this citizenship of the universe consists man’s true freedom, and his liberation from the thraldom of narrow hopes and fears.

This is, again, all very well in theory. But would it work in practice? And since when is philosophy the best way to achieve that? I should think reading other non-fiction, especially history and science, would do the trick much better, at least in theory. Reading thoughtfully the great works of fiction would, in theory, have much the same effect. So would, in theory, travel and contact with different cultures. Why bother with philosophy? I don’t know. It doesn’t seem to be worth the trouble.

So, in the end, The Problems of Philosophy didn’t restore my philosophical faith. The reasons are partly Russellian but mostly philosophical. The book concludes with a Bibliographical Note in which some works by Plato, Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Berkeley, Hume and Kant are “specially recommended”. I have read Spinoza and I do intend to read Hume one day. But I see no point in wasting time with the others. No, not even with Plato who may (or may not) be a great thinker but is certainly a poor writer. The mature post-WWI Russell is an outstanding writer: that alone is a recommendation enough to read his full-length volumes on mind, matter, knowledge and truth, among others.

I do not recommend books on principle (for reading is a love affair and how can I tell you whom to fall in love with?), but I do suggest skipping this booklet and going for the rather bigger History of Western Philosophy (1945). It is ten times longer, to say the least, but so marvellously readable that you will surprise yourself by reading it complete in no time. The author is the same, but in those 33 years his writing acquired brevity and liveliness sorely missed in 1912. Besides, the scope is far greater and the philosophical ideas are presented in the context of the people and the times that produced them. It didn’t restore my philosophical faith, either. But it did put my philosophical scepticism on a much surer ground.

The Problems of Philosophy is a cute little book. But it’s far from Bertrand Russell’s best work. ( )
  Waldstein | Mar 1, 2020 |
It took me a few months to finish, but the book gets easier as you read on. Russell does a great job building the foundation to be able to fully support his conclusion in the final chapter.

We should all be reading books like this to stave off the dumbening of society. ( )
  reenum | Dec 25, 2019 |
Brilliant, but in the sense of clever. I never have a sense of depth when reading Russell. Life's deeper questions were actually not questions at all, so let us get on with our lives. No wonder that D. H. Lawrence and Wittgenstein accused Russell of living a life of merely superficiality. There was an Edwardian air about Russell to the end of his long life, that if only the world listened to an enlightened gentleman like himself, all its problems would be solved. That the world's problems might be deeper than that (read any of the contemporary critiques of civilization - Left or Right, secular or religious - written during the same decades), seemed to have escaped him. I imagine Russell meeting the likes of Hobbes or Pascal or Machiavelli (those who saw through human vanity) and saying:

"Dear fellow, I think I find a flaw in your reasoning." I suppose an ugly truth about human nature would not count as a truth at all for Russell.

Wittgenstein thought highly of Kierkegaard, and Spengler suited his Austrian end-of-empire view after World War I. I do like Russell's view of Marxism: a religion with a chosen people, a holy book and a prophet, which likewise he could not believe.

Enough of Philosophy! Now I'll put my Soothsayer hat on. I'm going to make a prediction. There will be wars in the future. There will be corruption. There will be a market crash. There will be crimes of passion. There will be moments of selfless bravery. X Factor will always be rubbish. I am not a Supreme Being, but the predictions above are startlingly accurate. If we can agree that humans are predictable and will cause these events to happen then isn't this just a psychological exercise designed to seek out those who think they are mavericks? This is just a question of specifics-how predictable are humans? I've already predicted a bunch of stuff, it's the detail of where/when where I fall down. But I've still made predictions based on human nature and Simon Cowell. Is that so hard?

It reminds me of that joke:

"Would you sleep with me for £10 million?"
"Would you sleep with me for a fiver."
"Hell no, what kind of person do you think I am?!"
"I've already ascertained the kind of person that you are, now I'm just trying to determine the degree."

Boomboom ( )
  antao | Jun 21, 2019 |
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» Lägg till fler författare (14 möjliga)

Författarens namnRollTyp av författareVerk?Status
Russell, Bertrandprimär författarealla utgåvorbekräftat
Ījabs, IvarsÖversättaremedförfattarevissa utgåvorbekräftat
Byttner, AndersÖversättaremedförfattarevissa utgåvorbekräftat
Fredriksson, GunnarEfterordmedförfattarevissa utgåvorbekräftat
Lledó, EmilioFörordmedförfattarevissa utgåvorbekräftat
Okonova-Treice, GitaOmslagsformgivaremedförfattarevissa utgåvorbekräftat
Perry, JohnInledningmedförfattarevissa utgåvorbekräftat
Vries, Joke deÖversättaremedförfattarevissa utgåvorbekräftat
Xirau, JoaquínÖversättaremedförfattarevissa utgåvorbekräftat
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In the following pages I have confined myself in the main to those problems of philosophy in regard to which I thought it possible to say something positive and constructive, since merely negative criticism seemed out of place. For this reason, theory of knowledge occupies a larger space than metaphysics in the present volume, and some topics much discussed by philosophers are treated very briefly, if at all.
Is there any knowledge in the world which is so certain that no reasonable man could doubt it?
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