Russell on the elusive knowledge of the Self

In ‘The Problems of Philosophy’ (1912), Bertrand Russell pays tribute to the French philosopher, René Descartes, for performing ‘ great service to philosophy’ by introducing a rational method of doubt in the search for truthful knowledge. He doesn’t identify any apparent difficulty in the Cartesian assumption that everything outside my own thoughts, feelings snd sensations, could be a mere fantasy. However, he brings his own realist interpretation to bear on the argument, when he comments that, despite the logical possibility that our entire lives could, indeed, be nothing but dreams created by ourselves, our common sense actually persuades us of the reality of external objects independent of us and causing our sensations.

Russell also expresses some reservations as to Descartes’ famous proposition ‘I think therefore I am’ as he underlines the difficulty to localise and pinpoint a permanent self in the midst of all our changing sensations. Descartes does not only establish the existence of a self but also its inseparable coexistence with some mental activity understood, here, as ‘all that which we are conscious as operating in us. And that is why not alone the understanding, willing, imagining, but also feeling, are the same thing as thought.’

Russell moves towards a more sceptical position, very close to Hume, when he writes: ‘It might seem as though we were quite sure of being the same person today as we were yesterday, and this is no doubt true in some sense. But the real Self is as hard to arrive at as the real table, and does not seem to have that absolute, convincing certainty that belongs to particular experiences.’

Russell’s Self is even more elusive than Hume’s since the latter relies on unquestioned impressions while the former’s description suggests a total absence of a permanent, let alone, a present self. We can’t even say that we are a collection of all ‘sense-data’ as there is no coherent, simultaneous consciousness accompanying the myriad of impressions and sensations constituting a human life.

So, what is left, if we have no absolute certainty about:

  • our own identity
  • the reality of other people, as physical objects and separate mind
  • the reality of physical objects, in general, apart from the absolutely certain character of ‘some at least of our immediate experience.’

Russell is now prepared to characterise knowledge as a combination of ‘instinctive beliefs’ – derived from our common sense – mixed with other beliefs acquired, in a very Humean way, by habit and association. Relying on their mutual compatibility as a criterion of their practical validity, Russell refuses to reject beliefs before they have been put to the test and clearly validated or discarded by other beliefs.

The legacy of both Descartes and Hume comes to light in Russell’s insistence on the necessity to sift through our beliefs methodically in order to ‘isolate’ them and put each one of them to the most stringent verification test. Russell thus transposes the Cartesian method of arriving at ‘clear and distinct ideas’ into the Humean world of ‘natural beliefs’. His recommendation that we should organise our knowledge in an orderly, systematic way, does not eradicate the possibility of error but ‘its likelihood is diminished by the interaction of the parts and by the critical scrutiny which has preceded acquiescence.’ Our knowledge of physical objects as well as our perception of our own ‘self’ remains, for Russell, a precarious enterprise as it rests on a fluctuating hierarchy of beliefs, always open to critical scrutiny and perpetual reassessment.

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