Bertrand Russell on Belief

When we read from the passages of esteemed thinkers, we reflect upon ourselves, our world, and what we are doing in it. In this spirit we decide if we want to make room in our own philosophy for such perspectives and in doing so we consider our individual “beliefs”. Such a term, belief, is riddled with metrics and questions that can take us into another sticky territory… “what is truth” … (which goes far beyond today’s blog.)

Here is a bit of Bertrand Russell on belief, which to this blogger is worthy of a moment’s reflection.

Bertrand russell _2 “… When we survey our beliefs, we find that we hold different beliefs with very different degrees of conviction. Some-such as the belief that I am sitting in a chair, or that 2+2=4 can be doubted by few except those who have had a long training in philosophy. Such beliefs are held so firmly that non- philosophers who deny them are put into lunatic asylums. Other beliefs, such as the facts of history, are held rather less firmly, but still in the main without much doubt where they are well authenticated. Beliefs about the future, as that the sun will rise tomorrow and the trains will run approximately as in Bradshaw, may be held with almost as great conviction as beliefs about the past. Scientific laws are generally believed less firmly, and there is a gradation among them such as seems nearly certain to such as have only a slight probability in their favor. Philosophical beliefs, finally, will, with most people, take a still lower place, since the opposite beliefs of others can hardly fail to induce doubt. Belief, therefore, is a matter of degree. To speak of belief, disbelief, doubt, and suspense of judgment as the only possibilities is as if, from the writing on the thermometer, we were to suppose that blood heat, summer heat, temperate, and freezing were the only temperatures. This is a continuous gradation in belief, and the more firmly we believe anything, the less willing we are to abandon it in the case of conflict…”

Bertrand Russell and the ‘utility’ of history

History is read, viewed, and even dismissed for a variety of reasons; all of which would be too cumbersome to analyze in brevity. However, I offer up to you the words of Philosopher Bertrand Russell, who suggests quite succinctly, “History is valuable, to begin with, because it is true; and this, though not the whole of its value, is the foundation and condition of all the rest…”

Today’s blog reflects on the “utility” of history; a term coined by Russell… (The term ‘utility” I find most fascinating; for it is not often exercised in regards to the study of history.) So, in the words of Mr. Russell, let us begin…

PH00873 “ … Another and a greater utility, however, belongs also to history. It enlarges the imagination, and suggests possibilities of action and feeling which would not have occurred to an uninstructed mind. It selects from past lives the elements which were significant and important; it fills our thoughts with splendid examples, and with the desire for greater ends than unaided reflection would have discovered. It makes visible and living the growth and greatness of nations, enabling us to extend our hopes beyond the span of our own lives. In all these ways, a knowledge of history is capable of giving statesmanship, and to our daily thoughts, a breadth and scope unattainable by those whose view is limited to the present…”

Philosopher Bertrand Russell and his thoughts on history

I begin today’s “blog” with the esteemed thinker- Bertrand Russell; not exactly a household name, however a man who has enlightened the world with his thoughts. Let me share a mini- bio that may jog some memories (especially those philosophy majors) as to who he is. (1892 to 1970) Bertrand Russell was a British born philosopher, mathematician, logician, historian, and social critic. In 1950 he won the Nobel Prize in literature “in recognition of his varied and significant writings in which he champions humanitarian ideals and freedom of thought”…..Now, lets get on with his writing relating to one of my favorite subjects…history…


“Of all the studies by which men acquire citizenship of the intellectual commonwealth, no single one is so indispensable as the study of the past. To know how the world developed to the point at which our individual memory begins; how the religions, the institutions, the nations among which we live, became what they are; to be acquainted with the great of other times, with customs and beliefs differing widely from our own- these things are indispensable to any consciousness of our position, and to any emancipation from the accidental circumstances of our education. It is not only to the historian that history is valuable, not only to the professed student of archives and documents, but to all who are capable of a contemplative survey of human life. But the value of history is so multiform, that those to whom some one of its sides appeals with especial force are in constant danger of forgetting all the others…”