27 March 2010

Russell’s Realism

Filed under: First Lines, Ktismata — ktismatics @ 12:12 pm

“Is there any knowledge of the world which is so certain that no reasonable man could doubt it?”

This is the first sentence of Bertrand Russell’s The Problems of Philosophy (1912). Not having previously read anything by Russell but having a sort of passing acquaintance with his legacy, I expected (and feared) that he would devote most of his attention to logic. I expected him to transform ordinary sentences like “The cat is on the mat” to strangely annotated equations from which various inductions and deductions could be drawn. Happily, Russell touched barely at all on such arcana.

Mostly I’d say that Russell’s book is a concise elaboration on realism. In the first chapter, “Appearance and Reality,” Russell notes that the sensory impressions we get from, say, a wooden table, vary depending on the angle at which we view the table, the lighting, the scale of inspection (raw vision versus microscope), and so on.

“Thus it becomes evident that the real table, if there is one, is not the same as what we immediately experience by sight or touch or hearing. The real table, if there is one, is not immediately known to us at all, but must be an inference from what is immediately known. Hence, two very different questions arise; namely (1) Is there a real table at all? (2) If so, what sort of object can it be? (p. 11)

Russell answers the first question in the affirmative: there is a real table existing independently of the individual human observer and of intersubjective consensus. It is the real table that causes our sensory impressions of it.

“The real table, if it exists, we will call a ‘physical object.’ Thus we have to consider the relation of sense-data to physical objects. The collection of all physical objects is called matter.” (p. 12)

Russell dismisses as implausible and unduly complicated the idea that we create the sense-data about the world rather than apprehending it. E.g., suppose Russell sees a cat on one side of the room, then a minute later he sees it on the other side of the room. Russell deems it more likely and less intellectually baggy that a real cat moved unnoticed from one side of the room to the other, rather than than that Russell created two separate sensory impressions of a cat, first in one place, then in another, in a room which is itself merely a sensory projection of Russell’s mind. Intersubjective agreement as the source of what we purport to know about the world he likewise rejects. After all, we are acquainted with other people in the same way we know about tables: through sense-data. In short, the common-sense notion of a really existing external world populated with material things seems the most acceptable explanation of our experiences and thoughts about the world.

If real material objects cause our sensory impressions of them, then what are these objects actually like? Russell is prepared to accede to the findings of natural science. As to what science actually has to say on the matter Russell is fairly vague. He talks about stationary objects and motion and space, but he never discusses forces that act on objects or that impel motion. Of course this is a philosophy book and not a science book.

Eventually Russell does talk about logic, but he spends practically no time at all evaluating the logic of mathematical or linguistic statements in and of themselves. Mostly he insists that language, like sense data, is about something other than itself. If I say “The school is between the house and the mountains,” what’s most important about this sentence is the information it conveys about the relative positions of real things in the real world.

A statement is true to the extent that it conveys accurate information about those aspects of the world it describes. In other words, Russell contends that truth corresponds with facts about the real world. He’s not prepared to define “fact” precisely; e.g., “The grass is green” is true in that it corresponds with sense-data facts about the grass even if it doesn’t correspond with scientific facts about the “real” grass which causes the sense-data. Suppose I encounter a new statement that conveys content consistent with a body of other statements generally regarded as true. This sort of inter-statement coherence may increase the likelihood that the new statement will likewise prove to be true. However, coherence among statements doesn’t make them true, either individually or collectively: the whole pack of statements might all be false in similar ways.

The purpose of this book, first published a hundred years ago, is to introduce the big questions of philosophy, so Russell doesn’t go into great detail in justifying his answers. What strikes me, as someone who hasn’t studied philosophy, is Russell’s quite thoroughgoing (though not unalloyed) realism. My understanding is that Russell was an influential figure in the split of Anglophone analytic philosophy from continental philosophy. I presume that the analytics’ commitment to realism has generally persisted, but that the focus of their philosophical work shifted to mathematics and logic and language mostly because the philosophers regarded science as the proper field for investigating the nature of reality.



  1. There’s a big volume of Russell with synopses of philosophers. I remember that he says ‘I don’t like Nietzsche’. I guess such a dislike has to be carefully cultivated, or you probably end up liking him even if it’s not in your best interests, just because you can’t will otherwise! The infamous lustmolch was also a big fan of Russell, but since this is obviously not that book I looked through, I shall read your post tomorrow and attempt not to comment, as others will surely be A-SWARMIN’.

    Comment by Quantity of Butchness — 27 March 2010 @ 10:25 pm

    • But Butch, isn’t perspectivism reflexively self-defeating?

      Comment by Protagoras, having come to reflect upon the difficulties associated with his position — 28 March 2010 @ 5:05 am

      • Again, I’ve no idea what you’re talking about.

        Comment by Quantity of Butchness — 28 March 2010 @ 10:29 am

  2. Nietzsche: “Goest thou to woman? Forget not thy whip.”
    Russell: “nine women out of ten would get the whip away from him, and he knew it, so he kept away from women, and soothed his wounded vanity with unkind remarks.”
    I’m afraid I would have had to edit this blog conversation in order to protect N’s wounded vanity.

    Comment by john doyle — 28 March 2010 @ 6:47 am

  3. I have now read your post, and think it is velly good. This is the kind of ‘go back to square one’ moment that I value and think important, as well as velly rare on the internet. Peopoos just want to go off on rants from really just anywhere, and that is part of why the world is going to the dogs. I like Russell’s sense of things as basic and unimpossible. He does not cause confusion and illitation like many others who were writing in the 00’s of the 20th century as well as the teens.

    I feel that this helps me to put the contributions of Mr. Glaham Harman and Revi Blyant into a better perpective, even if some of the journals have seen their best days which pubricize them.

    Thank you.

    Comment by Quantity of Butchness — 29 March 2010 @ 6:47 pm

  4. My pleasure, Quantity. I presume that most of the object-oriented theorists are more aware of this philosophical history than I, although they position themselves in the continental rather than the analytic tradition. I believe that the analytic types tend to eschew the grand metaphysical gesture, focusing instead on narrowly defined problems and questions, working more like empirical scientists in that regard. It’s probably true also that the analytic tradition, like the continentals, began focusing more on “language games” as a self-contained realm divorced from materiality. Maybe a return to realism is necessary every hundred years or so. I tend to agree with Russell that the scientists are probably best prepared to explore what material reality is really like, but they don’t tend to think about the nature of their work as abstractly as do the philosophers.

    Comment by john doyle — 29 March 2010 @ 10:13 pm

    • The analytic “tradition” isn’t really one thing, though: Wittgenstein’s turn to language games and the school of ordinary language analysis it spawned were founded on an explicit rejection of Russell’s insight that there’s an underlying logical form to natural language partially dissimulated by its syntactic structure.

      I’m not too sure if analytic philosophy ever totally refrained from metaphysics, even at the height of logical positivism, it’s just that it doesn’t hold with the excesses of speculative metaphysics à la German Idealism.

      Comment by Protagoras, having come to reflect upon the difficulties associated with his position — 30 March 2010 @ 9:29 am

    • Thanks Protagoras. A couple of follow-up questions if you don’t mind. The “underlying logical form to natural language”: did Russell propose this because he believed that natural language operated according to an a priori logical structure that links the orderliness of the world with the orderliness of human thought? Was Wittgenstein’s rejection of this position based on re-affirming a disconnect between minds and material reality? Or was W. making a more pragmatic argument: people use language for various purposes, with logic being only one subset? Or was W. more structuralist in a continental sense: language is a self-referential system where words don’t signify something in the world but something inside the language itself?

      Comment by john doyle — 30 March 2010 @ 10:17 am

      • did Russell propose this because he believed that natural language operated according to an a priori logical structure that links the orderliness of the world with the orderliness of human thought?

        Did he think there was a coeval affinity between Thought and Being? No.

        Russell’s purpose was to construct a metalanguage in which the logicosemantic ambiguities of ordinary language could be resolved, the paradigm case being ‘Is the proposition “The present King of France is bald” true or false?’

        Was Wittgenstein’s rejection of this position based on re-affirming a disconnect between minds and material reality?

        It’s very much a matter of debate, as he doesn’t present a systematic exposition of his ideas on the matter. My guess would be that he regarded forms of life as possessing a quasi-transcendental status.

        Comment by Protagoras, having come to reflect upon the difficulties associated with his position — 30 March 2010 @ 11:56 am

      • So the paradigm case gets into the issue of whether anything that can be said should be regarded as referring to something that really is true or false relative to the really-existing world? The question about the King of France’s hair is grammatically and logically correct, but there’s a disjuncture from reality in its premises that makes it unanswerable. But if one were to talk about an alternative imaginary reality in which there is a King of France, then the sentence is coherent and answerable. This gets back to Russell’s insistence that a true statement corresponds with reality rather than merely cohering with a set of other statements, all of which may be false. We could create a coherent imaginary French kingdom in which all sorts of sentences make sense and are either true or false relative to this imaginary reality, yet be completely disconnected from “real” reality in which no King of France exists.

        Comment by john doyle — 30 March 2010 @ 1:27 pm

  5. When I read some of the recent posts on Larval Subjects, for example, I can’t decide if what’s on offer is a modestly realistic corrective or a grand synthetic theory of everything. There’s a recent post, inspired by Marx’s commodity fetishism, in which Levi contends that Marx, in his single-minded attention on the value of human labor, loses sight of the actual physical thing being bought and sold. Or that continental philosophers, so focused on language, lose sight of the things being talked about. These seem like welcome correctives to an unbalanced situation in particular corners of philosophy.

    When Marx wrote about wooden tables, did he ignore the means of production — the trees and saws and planks, the land on which the trees sit and the rivers down which the trees were floated to the lumbermill, the woodscrews and screwdrivers, the factories where the tables are assembled? Did Marx not recognize that people who buy tables actually use them as physical things used while eating or writing? I can see the reasons behind specialization, both in table-making and in economics. I also recognize the tendency to think that one’s own specialty is the most important part of the system. Reminders, both theoretical and practical, are helpful.

    I can also see why, as a corrective, some philosopher might focus on those parts of the system that have been ignored: the physical table itself, for example, independent of its construction or its use or its price tag. Or, rather than specializing on components, someone might attend to how the whole system hangs together. Maybe in order to carve out some space it becomes necessary to criticize those who focus their attention on fetishizing and profit-taking and worker alienation. Fine.

    Then, in the next post, Levi says that he doesn’t understand how having a theory of the subject contributes either to a theory of change or to a change of theory. He says that being able to map how things are put together is the most important kind of theory. Aren’t subjects part of what gets put together? Don’t subjects contribute to the putting-together process? Again, I can see as a corrective pointing out that subjects aren’t the only components to a larger assemblage. And maybe theorizing about subjects in the abstract isn’t as useful as figuring out how aubjects, or even these particular subjects, participate in some particular assemblage under investigation. Maybe there are enough subject-theorists already, and Levi is issuing a call to break through the obsession with subjects. Again, fine.

    Maybe at issue is not just the tendency to over-focus on one component of a larger system, but to get too abstract. If I’m making a table, I have to concern myself about materials, costs, design, potential uses, tools, skills. If I run a furniture store I have to think about inventory, costs, sales staff, display, customer tastes. Maybe Levi’s object-oriented approach isn’t a grandiose revolutionary gesture but just the opposite: an appeal to the details of specific but complex things and processes, an overcoming of the alienation of theory, and of theorists, resulting from excessive abstraction and unbalanced specialization.

    This line of reflection is stimulated by the convergence in time of my having finished Russell’s book, Quantity’s comment (not sure about the inversion of l’s and r’s in its text), and Levi’s most recent posts. So it’s an assemblage really.

    Comment by john doyle — 30 March 2010 @ 6:10 am

  6. As for Nietzsche and perspectivism, here’s the Wikipedia entry:

    “Perspectivism is the philosophical view developed by Friedrich Nietzsche that all ideations take place from particular perspectives. This means that there are many possible conceptual schemes, or perspectives, which determine any possible judgment of truth or value that may be made; this implies that no way of seeing the world can be taken as definitively “true”, but does not necessarily propose that all perspectives are equally valid.

    “Perspectivism rejects objective metaphysics as impossible, and claims that there are no objective evaluations which transcend cultural formations or subjective designations. This means that there are no objective facts, and that there can be no knowledge of a thing in itself. This separates truth from a particular (or single) vantage point, and means that there are no ethical or epistemological absolutes.”

    Russell talks about six people sitting around a dining room table. Each, looking at the table, sees a different four-sided shape, nearly parallelograms except that the farther edges appear to recede toward a binocular vanishing point. None of them sees a rectangle. Still, all six people agree that it’s the same table, each person acknowledges that it’s a rectangle even though that’s not what they perceive from their individual perspectives. As Russell says, each observer infers from his limited perspective the existence and dimensions of the real table.

    Comment by john doyle — 30 March 2010 @ 9:05 am

    • Right, but they do that by abstracting from a series of perspectives on that and other tables.

      Comment by Carl — 30 March 2010 @ 2:08 pm

    • Right, not by seeing beyond the appearances to the ideal rectangular form of Table with a big T.

      When one directly measures the lengths of the sides and the degrees of the angles of the tabletop, what perspective is that? It’s not an averaged perspective of all possible observers; it’s more the perspective of the tabletop itself. And measurement circumvents the bias of human perception. I might see a 4-sided surface and infer a rectangle, but the angles might not really be right angles after all.

      Comment by john doyle — 30 March 2010 @ 2:48 pm

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