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Bertrand Russell

Philosophy of Culture

By Bertrand Russell, Cambridge University Library, citizen philosophy, Islamic falasifa, Meaning in Anthropos, minority repertories

Cambridge University Library

The citizen version of analytical philosophy does not necessarily converge in all respects with the academic equivalent. The former  may occasionally sound a note of innovation.

Contemporary academic philosophy was not sufficient to contain my interest during the 1970s and 1980s. In my own citizen instance, an investigation of interdisciplinary matters soon developed, while retaining a close interest in “philosophical problems” and innovative analytical formats. The social sciences and the history of religions now furnish so much data that to ignore these is a mistake.

Further, the history of religions to some extent converges with the history of philosophy, in that certain minority repertories (e.g., the Islamic falasifa) are closely related to (though not by any means identical with) religious sociocultures. The same considerations apply to Jewish philosophers of the medieval era, a category who frequently lived in Islam-dominated environments.

In my own case, the field of philosophy is not limited to modern Western philosophy (and the preceding Schoolmen), but extends to the more inclusive panorama of classical Greek and Islamic phases of the phenomenon. There is a basic three tier cross-cultural investigation involved, becoming rather more complex when various extensions are admitted. In this inclusive approach, there is ample room for the “problems” and “language” factors, not always arising in the format anticipated by contemporaries.

Three tier presentation is conventionally credited, a well known instance being Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy (1946). Russell covered the Greeks, Christian exponents and Schoolmen, and the moderns. There was only a brief chapter on the Muslim counterparts and a fleeting reference to the medieval Jewish contribution. Scholarship in such neglected fields has grown substantially since the 1940s; the history of philosophy has to some extent changed contour.

The inclusive approach does require some basic study. When I commenced this form of “doing philosophy,” I did not grasp the extent of the study materials involved. That emerging problem caused me to undertake private research at Cambridge University Library. My preliminary work Meaning in Anthropos (1991) was composed in 1984. Conventional philosophy was there juxtaposed alongside data from social science, the history of science, and the history of religions.

I do not claim to have charted anything definitive, only to have pursued a strong interest anchored in library studies undertaken at my own expense in Cambridge over a twelve year period. There was no official grant available for such an unorthodox interdisciplinary project.

I have described my early Cambridge endeavour as interdisciplinary anthropography, a cumbersome phrase which I prefer to abbreviate. The endeavour is distinct from ethnography. I have also referred to the ongoing approach under discussion in terms of a philosophy of culture, a more readily assimilable concept, even though it may comprise a simplification of the project denoted. See also my web article Aspects of Citizen Philosophy (2009).

Standards of culture are diversely reflected in religious, political, and educational formats, for better or for worse. Definitions of culture have varied in social science. Philosophical definition is still in the offing. I believe that culture is a more pressing yardstick than society or language, despite the relevance of the latter terms.

Kevin R. D. Shepherd
January 26th 2010

ENTRY no. 10

Copyright © 2010 Kevin R. D. Shepherd. All Rights Reserved.

Wittgenstein Revisited

By Bertrand Russell, logical positivism, Tractatus, Wittgenstein

Ludwig Wittgenstein, 1947

There are some very different interpretations of Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951). The Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921) was an influential work receiving much commentary over the years. A key sentence of the Tractatus is well known. “What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.” Much depends upon what we really can speak about.

There is still no definitive or standard view of what the Tractatus means. Contrasting interpretations of this salient text can evoke irritation. The ambiguity discernible here perhaps underlines Wittgenstein’s own statement, made to his publishers, that what the Tractatus did not contain was more important than what it did contain. This paradox is sometimes interpreted in the context of a “metaphysical” dimension which Wittgenstein regarded as being beyond speech. While one version tends to interpret him as a sceptic, others find in him a strong religious streak of a nonconformist complexion.

“The idea that philosophy is not a doctrine, and hence should not be approached dogmatically, is one of the most important insights of the Tractatus” (Anat Biletzki, “Ludwig Wittgenstein,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). However, by 1931, the author was referring to his Tractatus as “dogmatic” (ibid).

Wittgenstein recognised deficiencies of the Tractatus in his later years. “It was above all [Piero] Sraffa’s acute and forceful criticism that compelled Wittgenstein to abandon his earlier views and set out upon new roads” (Von Wright 1958:15).

Another interpretation suggests that he was less discontented with the Tractatus in his mature years than is often believed. The crux here is that Wittgenstein was more dissatisfied with the assumptions he probed, not with his actual conclusions. The basic confrontation transpired to be with logical positivism. He examined the belief that an entirely empirical language is possible. Adherents of this explanation say that the Tractatus proved the positivist proposition about language to be untenable.

From this angle, his main point of disagreement was with what other philosophers made of the Tractatus, especially the Vienna Circle, who were enthusiastic about this work. Wittgenstein is said to have perceived that Bertrand Russell, G.E. Moore, Rudolf Carnap, and others did not fully understand the arguments involved. In this version, the flawed interpretation of the Tractatus, by the Vienna Circle, was the main reason for Wittgenstein’s return to Cambridge in 1929, likewise his subsequent application to the Philosophical Investigations (1953).

Wittgenstein wrote as though philosophy, prior to his time, amounted to a hopeless confusion. The traditional “problems of philosophy” were mere pseudo-problems arising from a lack of attention to the employment of language. How we use language is here the denominator. Language gains a monumental significance for Wittgenstein. “The limits of language are the limits of my world.” He restricted attention to the “language games,” a straitjacket which is not inevitable outside his worldview. 

Some commentators explain the situation by claiming that Wittgenstein transited from logic to ordinary language in his rejection of dogmatism. He preferred an aphoristic style of composition to anything systematic. 

Investigators have found a contradiction in Wittgenstein’s  so-called “contemplative philosophy.” His form of verbalism avoided “metaphysical” identifications. However, he did at least once express a positive view about the conception of God. There are different commentarial statements about whether he actually believed in God. In theory, he should have remained silent about such beliefs, in accord with his austere discussion of language philosophy as represented in the Tractatus.

The memoir by Professor Norman Malcolm states: “Wittgenstein frequently said to me disparaging things about the Tractatus. I am sure, however, that he still regarded it as an important work” (Malcolm 1958:69).

Malcolm also penetrated the difficult subject of religion in this instance. Wittgenstein told Malcolm that he had been contemptuous of religion in his youth; at about the age of 21, a change occurred in him, when “for the first time he saw the possibility of religion” (ibid:70). Then during his service in the First World War, he was strongly influenced by Tolstoy’s writings on the Gospels (ibid). He nevertheless produced such an ostensibly “positivist” work as the Tractatus, from which Malcolm cites 6.44: “Not how the world is, is the mystical, but that it is.” Like other aphorisms of Wittgenstein, special interpretation is needed.

Wittgenstein was impatient with declared proofs of the existence of God. He disliked the writings of Cardinal Newman, “but revered the writings of St. Augustine” (Malcolm 1958:71). However, he cannot be called a Christian. The verdict of Malcolm was:

I believe that he looked on religion as a ‘form of life’ (to use an expression from the Investigations) in which he did not participate, but with which he was sympathetic and which greatly interested him. Those who did participate he respected – although here as elsewhere he had contempt for insincerity. I suspect that he regarded religious belief as based on qualities of character and will that he himself did not possess. (Malcolm, Memoir, p. 72)

Wittgenstein has been described as a tortured genius, subject to bouts of depression and suicidal tendency as a consequence of his homosexual disposition (Monk 1990). One interpretation is that he was ashamed of the disposition, from which he wanted to escape. He contrasts with the more suave and socialising heterosexual figure of Bertrand Russell (1872-1970), his former tutor who became a figurehead of the radical liberalism gaining popularity at the end of Russell’s long life. Both of these entities can be criticised for lifestyle problems without denying their intellectual merits.

To his credit, Wittgenstein evidently believed that philosophy is useless unless facilitating a morally superior lifestyle. To him, the routine profession of philosophy amounted to a “living death.” This perspective contradicts the status profile frequently awarded that profession elsewhere. His reaction to British Empire academic philosophy is memorable. He exhorted his students to apply themselves to a practical pursuit, such as medicine or manual labour, implying this to be the  best resort if they were serious about philosophy. 


Malcolm, Norman, Ludwig Wittgenstein: A Memoir (Oxford University Press, 1958).

McGuinness, Brian, ed., Wittgenstein in Cambridge: Letters and Documents 1911-1951 (Oxford: Blackwell, 1995; second edn, 2008).

McNally, Thomas, Wittgenstein and the Philosophy of Language: The Legacy of the Philosophical Investigations (Cambridge University Press, 2017).

Monk, Ray, Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius (London: Jonathan Cape, 1990).

——–Bertrand Russell: The Ghost of Madness (London: Jonathan Cape, 2000).

Oskari, Kuusela, and Marie McGinn, eds., The Oxford Handbook of Wittgenstein (Oxford University Press, 2011).

Sullivan, Peter, and Michael Potter, eds., Wittgenstein’s Tractatus: History and Interpretation (Oxford University Press, 2013).

Von Wright, G. H., “Biographical Sketch,” in Malcolm, Ludwig Wittgenstein: A Memoir (Oxford University Press, 1958).

Von Wright, G. H.,  and Friedrich Waismann, Ludwig Wittgenstein and the Vienna Circle (Oxford: Blackwell, 1979).

Wittgenstein, Ludwig, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, trans. D. F. Pears and B. F. McGuinness (London: Routledge, 1961).

——–Philosophical Investigations, trans. G. E. M. Anscombe (Oxford: Blackwell, 1963).


Kevin R. D. Shepherd
January 11th 2010, modified 2021

ENTRY no. 8

Copyright © 2021 Kevin R. D. Shepherd. All Rights Reserved.

G. E. Moore and Commonsense

By analytical philosophy, Bertrand Russell, Bryan Magee, G. E. Moore

George Edward Moore

The Cambridge philosopher George Edward Moore (1873-1958) is strongly associated with the advocacy of “realist” commonsense. Together with his acquaintance Bertrand Russell, he originated the analytical philosophy that took strong root in Britain. There was a difference in the outreach of those two entities. Russell became an international figure, whereas the influence of Moore was largely confined to Britain.

Both Moore and Russell started their academic career at Cambridge as neo-Hegelians. These inhabitants of Trinity College were inheritors of the nineteenth century overspill from German idealism, a format found in British philosophy by the end of that century. Moore went to study at Trinity in 1892, adding philosophy to classics. There he met Russell and J. M. E. McTaggart (1866-1925), the latter a critical Hegelian and a lecturer at Trinity. Moore subsequently broke away from the influence of McTaggart (who eventually reaped a strong degree of oblivion for many years). This development prompted Russell’s similar revolt against the idealism of McTaggart. Yet unlike Russell, Moore nurtured a continuing aversion for empiricism, a trait which he acquired from the neo-Hegelians.

In his dissertation of 1898, Moore turned against Kantian idealism, confirming his new angle in realism. He became a Fellow of Trinity, and eventually a lecturer. His intellectual development is not straightforward, and has been subject to some generalisations. Only his friend Russell identified fully with the empiricist tradition stemming from Locke, Berkeley, and Hume. However, Moore did share in the “realist” reliance on sense data, which now became the operative mode of analysis, disdaining metaphysical elements.

While Russell moved into the technical world of mathematical logic, Moore established an analytical approach to ethical problems in Principia Ethica (1903), which transpired to be his most famous work. He has been credited with a “Platonistic” view of good as an objective but indefinable property. In this work he argued that ethical disputes cannot be resolved by criteria of the natural or social sciences; ethical values should be acknowledged in their own right.

From 1925 to 1939, Moore was Professor of Philosophy and Logic at Cambridge. By that time he had developed his “commonsense” realist position, first explicitly expressed in lectures of 1910-11. Here he remarked: “What is most amazing and most interesting about the views of many philosophers, is the way in which they go beyond or positively contradict the views of Common Sense” (Moore 1953:2).

This attitude was consolidated in his subsequent paper A Defence of Commonsense (1925). He was not a systematic philosopher. “Moore’s legacy is primarily a collection of arguments, puzzles and challenges” (Tom Baldwin, “George Edward Moore,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).

Moore was a friend of Wittgenstein, possessing a different temperament. They were not always in agreement. In other directions, Moore rejected the logical positivism that gained strong ground at Oxford via such entities as Alfred J. Ayer.

“Although Moore always denied that philosophy is just analysis, there is no denying that it [analysis] plays a central role in his philosophy” (Baldwin, article last linked). Moore felt that the commonsense boundaries of experience were sufficient to explain existence. He exercised a strong influence on the Oxford academic philosophers, firstly the logical positivist wave, and afterwards the linguistic analysts like J. L. Austin.

Accusations have been made that philosophy became “talk about talk,” a phrase associated with the analysis of concepts and speech. That disposition has frequently been critical of anything idealist or rationalist, or even scientific. Moore was content to analyse statements in ordinary language, without relying on science or any form of technical logic. This commonsense outlook was favoured by the Oxford philosopher J. L. Austin, who furthered the resistant attitude to logical positivism (and criteria of scientific standards dominating speech). The new trend viewed “philosophical problems” as confusions caused by the inappropriate use of language; the unravelling of the confusion via linguistic analysis was now believed by Austin and others to dissolve the problems.

The mergence of commonsense and linguistic analysis has been criticised in other directions, as not being any path to deliverance from problems. The nature of commonsense analysis has come under attack for being a simplistic mode, not the ultimate recourse. For instance, “modern science has shown that behind our moment-to-moment experience of the everyday world teem truths and realities that commonsense is totally unaware of, that are frequently astounding and often counter-intuitive, and sometimes deeply difficult to grasp even when we know them to be true” (Magee 1998:52).

The attack on commonsense advocacy in British philosophy alighted upon Bertrand Russell’s denial of commonsense in his well known book The Problems of Philosophy (1912). Russell here emphatically stated: “Commonsense leaves us completely in the dark as to the true intrinsic nature of physical objects.”

Professor Bryan Magee reflected: “The greatest tragedy of academic philosophy in the twentieth century in the English-speaking world is that it was developed as a profession largely by people to whom these things were not obvious, people who did not themselves have philosophical problems and who – perhaps for that reason – operated with a commonsense view of the world, and equated philosophical activity with conceptual analysis” (Magee 1998:53).

A further observation is that the alternatives to commonsense philosophy seemed to be contradicted by religious elements, the absolute idealism of Hegel, and the oracular writings of Nietzsche (ibid). Therefore everything else was eschewed as inferior or confusing.

British conceptual analysis (or “commonsense”) leaves rather large areas of questioning in matters that should not be taken for granted. For instance, the Magee formulation prompts a query as to the identity of the people who do experience “philosophical problems.” 


Ayer, Alfred J., Russell and Moore: The Analytical Heritage (Harvard University Press, 1971).

Baldwin, Tom, G. E. Moore (London: Routledge, 1990).

Baldwin, Tom, ed., G.E. Moore: Selected Writings (London: Routledge, 1993).

Magee, Bryan, Confessions of a Philosopher (London: Phoenix, 1998).

Moore, George Edward, Principia Ethica (Cambridge University Press, 1903).

——–Some Main Problems of Philosophy (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1953).

Schilpp, Paul A., ed., The Philosophy of G. E. Moore (Northwestern University Press, 1942).

Kevin R. D. Shepherd
December 8th 2009

ENTRY no. 4

Copyright © 2009 Kevin R. D. Shepherd. All Rights Reserved.

Bertrand Russell

By analytical philosophy, Bertrand Russell, Bryan Magee

Bertrand Russell

One of the most influential modern philosophers was Bertrand Russell (1872-1970). Some commentators say that he was the dominant figure in twentieth century philosophy. This being so, one is obliged to probe some aspects of his career.

Bertrand Russell was the grandson of Lord John Russell, being reared in a British aristocratic milieu, and eventually inheriting the status of an Earl. However, he allied himself with the Labour Party, being radical in his views. At Cambridge he studied mathematics, a subject which he adapted to philosophy. In 1898, Russell abandoned his neo-Hegelian idealism in favour of realism as the “new philosophy of logic.” He acknowledged the importance of science in this transition.

His early work Principles of Mathematics (1903) is famous for contending his subject in terms of a close relationship to logic. This stance has been described as logicism, meaning the view that mathematics is significantly reducible to formal logic. Russell arrived at his basic view of “mathematical logic” quite independently of the obscure Gottlob Frege (1848-1925), the German mathematician of Jena University who converged in this form of conceptualism (or logicism).

In collaboration with Alfred North Whitehead, Russell subsequently produced Principia Mathematica (1910-13), a three volume work that became celebrated in terms of a “new logic.” He was viewed by his admirers as a British version of Aristotle. Russell has been described as deducing mathematics from logic. “One of the effects has been not so much to subordinate mathematics to logic, which is what Frege and Russell wanted, but to subordinate logic to mathematics”  (Ayer 1988:308).

Bertrand Russell became an influential Professor of Philosophy (Monk 1996). From 1910 to 1915 he was a lecturer at Cambridge University, during which period he was tutor to Wittgenstein, whom he regarded as a genius. Departing from mathematical logic, Russell composed some books on philosophy, including The Problems of Philosophy (1912). His Oxford follower Alfred Ayer referred to this work as “the best introduction to philosophy that there is” (Ayer 1988:309). Russell here describes “various traditional philosophical problems from an empiricist standpoint” (ibid). He was continuing the British empiricist tradition associated with Locke, Berkeley, and Hume. Russell is celebrated as having inspired the analytic philosophy favoured by universities, sharing this honour with G. E. Moore (Ayer 1971).

Later, Russell veered away from philosophy, engaging in political and educational activities having a flavour of radical socialism. He gained fervent admirers and strong critics. “The permissive society was implemented by Bertrand Russell, whose advocacy of free love is memorable for the misery created in his family” (Shepherd 2004:251). He married four times and became notorious as a womaniser. His book Marriage and Morals (1929) gained brickbats. In contrast, he later acquired the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1950.

Russell was eventually hero-worshipped by the younger generation of the 1960s, who uncritically assimilated his political and social views, including the unwise disposition for free love that created so many problems. Russell was a symbol of pacifism and the campaign for nuclear disarmament, while also being noted for more questionable domestic conduct.

He wrote some further works on philosophy, including his famous History of Western Philosophy (1946). This book has received very differing assessments. The publisher Routledge refers to “the best-selling philosophy book of the twentieth century and one of the most important philosophical works of all time” (Routledge edition, 2000). A conflicting commentary came from Professor Bryan Magee, who says that Russell’s History is “overrated.” One judgment here reads: “The treatment throughout is superficial, not to say flip” (Magee 1998:220).

Furthermore, “for all his [Russell’s] genius he radically fails to understand Kant, and consequently the whole tradition of philosophy that has grown out of Kant’s work; his entire chapter on Schopenhauer is consistent with his never having read that philosopher’s main work” (Magee 1998:221).

These are weighty criticisms indeed. One is obliged to look closely at Magee’s personal description of Russell, whom he met towards the end of the latter’s long life, in 1960 to be precise.

Magee found that Russell was an elegantly courteous host, mentally alert at the age of 87, a fluent and humorous talker, and possessing a social record of impressive contacts the world over. For instance, Russell described how he had taught philosophy to the poet T. S. Eliot at Harvard. “He did not tell me what I subsequently discovered, that he [Russell] had had an affair with Eliot’s wife while the Eliots were living under his roof” (Magee 1998:264).

The subject gains due praise from Magee for his career achievements. However, significant contradictions for contemporary philosophy are emphasised. Although Russell is regarded as the founder of modern analytic philosophy, “he never regarded analysis as an end in itself” (ibid:216). Bertrand Russell started language philosophy, without viewing this as the objective, unlike his successors. More pointedly, “to the end of his days, he believed that the purpose of philosophy was what it had always been thought to be, namely the understanding of the true nature of reality, including ourselves” (ibid:217). In that respect, Russell was a polymath, not a specialist, and certainly not a linguist.

Even more pointedly, Bertrand Russell was one of the few who “understood clearly – what many people to this day fail to understand – that science of itself does not, and never can, establish a particular view of the ultimate nature of reality.” What science actually does is to “reduce everything it can deal with to a certain ground-floor level of explanation” (Magee 1998:218).

The Magee version of this perspective is memorable:

To many working scientists, science seems very obviously to suggest an ultimate explanation, namely a materialist one; but a materialist view of total reality is a metaphysics, not a scientific theory; there is no possibility whatsoever of scientifically proving, or disproving, it. (Magee 1998:218)

Magee finds the last philosophical book of Russell to be significant for reasons not always proclaimed. My Philosophical Development (1959) is described as a “substantial work aimed at the serious student of philosophy” (Magee 1998:220). The deduction is made that Russell was here acknowledging how his empiricist quest had failed. In the last paragraph, Russell states: “Empiricism as a theory of knowledge has proved inadequate” (ibid:222). Magee concludes that Russell finally arrived at a view which Kant had made a starting point in his own critical philosophy generations before. Moreover, Magee urges that Russell failed in pursuing logic and the philosophy of science, neither of these avenues having afforded a due explanation of known reality (ibid:219).

Ultimately, Magee views Russell as being impractical. His “genius was for solving theoretical problems” (Magee 1998:268). “He treated practical problems as if they were theoretical problems; in fact I do not think he could tell the difference” (ibid). This made Russell a “blunderer” in private and public life. “He had so little practical intelligence” (ibid).

The mathematical genius was thus at a disadvantage with real life problems of philosophy, which is not merely an academic or theoretical pursuit. Russell knew the limitations of language analysis; he apparently grasped, in the end, that his empiricist profile was a limitation. His flawed psyche (meaning his instinctual excesses) has been lamented by some commentators.

The most well known critique finds little of lasting value in Russell’s output from the 1920s onward (Monk 2000). The analytical philosopher became a journalist and popular writer on science and politics.  He needed money to pay for his expanding family, a scenario of chaotic and tragic events. His difficult relationship with his second wife Dora was not assisted by the tendencies of both to frequent affairs. Their daughter Katharine Tait was the victim of a protracted feud between her parents. She eventually became a Christian, defying the atheist manifesto of her father (Tait 1975). 

Russell abandoned his son John, who suffered a nervous breakdown. The pater was determined to get his son certified as insane and confined in an institution. The parental plan was for John to become a model of independence in purportedly progressive education. In fact, John became a schizophrenic. John’s daughter was also unstable, committing suicide at the age of 26, burning herself to death with paraffin. Biographer Ray Monk complains that Bertrand Russell, though a celebrated political activist, created disaster in his own home.  The eminent rationalist was emotionally callow (Monk 2000). He was involved in two acrimonious divorces that produced severe problems for his children and grandchildren. Russell became estranged from his ex-wives, his children, and his grandchildren. His own admission is on record: “What a failure I have made of my life, as a husband and as a father” (Monk 2000:311).


Ayer, Alfred J., Russell and Moore: The Analytical Heritage (Harvard University Press, 1971).

——–“Frege, Russell and Modern Logic” in Bryan Magee, The Great Philosophers (Oxford University Press, 1988).

Irvine, Andrew David, ed., Bertrand Russell: Critical Assessments (4 vols, London: Routledge, 1999).

Magee, Bryan, Confessions of a Philosopher (London: Phoenix, 1998).

Monk, Ray, Bertrand Russell: The Spirit of Solitude (London: Jonathan Cape, 1996).

——–Bertrand Russell: The Ghost of Madness (London: Jonathan cape, 2000).

Russell, Bertrand, Principles of Mathematics  (Cambridge University Press, 1903).

——–Problems of Philosophy (London: Williams and Norgate, 1912).

——–Marriage and Morals (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1929).

——–A History of Western Philosophy (1946; new edn, London: Routledge, 2000).

——–The Philosophy of Logical Atomism (University of Minnesota, 1949).

——–My Philosophical Development (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1959).

——–The Autobiography of Bertrand Russell (3 vols, London: George Allen and Unwin,  1967-69).

Shepherd, Kevin R. D., Some Philosophical Critiques and Appraisals (Dorchester: Citizen Initiative, 2004).

Tait, Katharine, My Father, Bertrand Russell (London: Gollancz, 1975).

Whitehead, Alfred North, and Bertrand Russell, Principia Mathematica (3 vols, Cambridge University Press, 1910-1913).


Kevin R. D. Shepherd
December 4th 2009, modified 2021

ENTRY no. 3

Copyright © 2021 Kevin R. D. Shepherd. All Rights Reserved.