Maarten Maartensz

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This are notes are by Maarten Maartensz to the text of Bertrand Russell's "Problems of Philosophy". Russell's text is in another file, that can be reached when on line by clicking on underlined "Back" at the end of the note.




Note 1: IS there any knowledge in the world which is so certain that no reasonable man could doubt it?

To speak of "any knowledge in the world which is so certain that no reasonable man could doubt it?" rather than "any belief" is rather odd, as knowledge commonly is supposed to be true.

And it is of some fundamental importance to see that to pose such a question presupposes a lot about natural language - here: English - and its speakers and readers, and presupposes this, rightly or wrongly, without, at least, much specific uncertainty.

In general, all argumentation, including arguments to the effect that no or few arguments establish their conclusions, presupposes the use of some language and quite a few assumptions about it, its use, and its users. Back to text.

Note 2: ...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

Russell's initial paragraph is mainly rhetorical. However, "philosophy is merely the attempt to answer (...) ultimate questions" is a good simple characteristic of what philosophy is. But I should like to be a little more specific on the ultimate questions philosophy tries to answer, and the reasons why this is important.

All human beings orient their lives around ideas about what reality is like, that they believe to explain their experiences, and ideas about what reality and human beings should be like, that they use to guide their behaviour. The first of these kinds of ideas is a metaphysical theory i.e. an answer to the question 'What does really exist?', the second an ethical or moral theory i.e. an answer to the question 'What should human beings do?'.

Human beings seem to need metaphysical and moral ideas because they are not born with instincts that determine for them what they should think and want, and are born with the capacities to make up their own minds and to question any belief they have or meet.

It is evident that most of the ideas in history that people have used to explain human experiences have been false or unfounded in many respects, and it is also evident that most of the ideas in history intended to direct human behaviour have been harmful to other human beings or to themselves. And most philosophies (religions, ideologies) have been held uncritically and by faith, not by reason, and not because those who believed in them were philosophers, but because they were human beings who needed some general orientation about what and how to think, what to aim at, and what to expect.

On the other hand, it is also evident that whatever adequate understanding people have of themselves, of others, and of their environments and possibilities, is based on the asking and answering of the type of general questions that are philosophical and scientific; that most of the answering of these general questions is mainly critical of earlier answers to the same questions; and that there seems to be no way of being human without trying to ask and answer such questions. Back to text.

Note 3: In daily life, we assume as certain many things which, on a closer scrutiny, are found to be so full of apparent contradictions that only a great amount of thought enables us to know what it is that we really may believe.

It seems to me we normally know what it is that we believe, but that our reasons are not as good as we believe they are (and not at all as good as we would like). And in general, philosophy is not much concerned with finding out what people really believe, but in the quality of the reasons and arguments for their beliefs. Back to text.

Note 4: In the search for certainty (..)

Why search for certainty? We should like to know, and we also would like to know and understand better what we think we know and understand, but it is quite conceivable, if not probable, that almost any knowledge or belief we come to hold, if we hold it reflectively and critically, is a belief qualified by some probability, such as "it is rather probable though not certain that so-and-so, for the following good but inconclusive reasons". What is true, it seems, is that to have any use for this last kind of judgment in a probability, we need to accept it as true. But what is accepted as true may be so accepted in an undogmatic spirit, and with the - nearly certain - belief that one shall find at some later time reasons to revise one's present beliefs.

Also, it deserves stressing that judgements of probability are true or not. Thus, it is true that the probability that this fair coin falls head if tosses equals ½, and it is true that the probability that this tricked coin falls head if tosses equals 1, if it has a head on both sides. Back.

Note 5: (..)  it is natural to begin with our present experiences, and in some sense, no doubt, knowledge is to be derived from them. But any statement as to what it is that our immediate experiences make us know is very likely to be wrong. It seems to me that I am now sitting in a chair, at a table of a certain shape (..)

Here the problem of note 3 emerges as an ambiguity: Russell is quite certain what Russell seems to see (he sees a table and so forth, at least apparently) - his doubts and problems only start when he asks himself whether what he is certain he sees is also really there in some sense, and if so in what sense. Back.

Note 6: I believe that the sun is about ninety-three million miles from the earth; that it is a hot globe many times bigger than the earth; that, owing to the earth's rotation, it rises every morning, and will continue to do so for an indefinite time in the future. I believe that, if any other normal person comes into my room, he will see the same chairs and tables and books and papers as I see

Again a problem of ambiguity. The problem concerns especially the term "same": Supposing he does, it does not necessarily follow that - all the same, one inserts - he must see "the same chairs and tables and books and papers" as Russell sees in the same way.

It is quite conceivable, indeed probable and commonsensical, that two different persons seeing the same things see these things not in all "the same" ways. Back.

Note 7: All this seems to be so evident as to be hardly worth stating, except in answer to a man who doubts whether I know anything.

What one says "in answer to a man who doubts whether I know anything" is that such a man at least does not doubt the evidence of his senses or authorities that Russell exists (or existed), and also does not doubt the language in which he doubts Russell knows anything. Back.

Note 8: I know that, if I move, the parts that reflect the light will be different, so that the apparent distribution of colours on the table will change. It follows that if several people are looking at the table at the same moment, no two of them will see exactly the same (..)

No such thing "follows". It is quite conceivable all people seeing the table see precisely the same, even if they see it from different perspectives and with different presumptions. Back.

Note 9: Here we have already the beginning of one of the distinctions that cause most trouble in philosophy -- the distinction between 'appearance' and 'reality', between what things seem to be and what they are (..)

Lets note carefully that the troublesome distinction between 'appearance' and 'reality' is one that is quite commonsensical. One does not need to be much of a philosopher at all to ask oneself sometimes whether what one experiences is really an adequate representation of real facts in a real world, and one does not need to be a philosopher at all to believe - indeed, to know - that sometimes what one has seen and judged to be really there more or less as seen later was judged to be something quite different, for this has happened to everyone. Back.

Note 10: To return to the table. It is evident from what we have found, that there is no colour which preeminently appears to be the colour of the table, or even of any one particular part of the table (..)

No, that is not evident at all. It is quite likely that one will believe that the colour of the table - supposing it is an ordinary table, in an ordinary room, in ordinary circumstances - appears to all who see it to be brown, say, possibly with some qualifications for some spots and blemishes.

Again, the underlying point is that what you and I may see may be different, even if we are looking both at the same time at the same thing (or so we shall assume), but that generally we can come easily to an agreement about the sensible properties of ordinary things in our ordinary experience. We may all be mistaken in attributing these properties and we may all have different experiences of the same thing, but at least for ordinary things we know we can agree easily that this patch of grass and that patch of grass have the same or a similar colour, and it is green.

Besides, without such intersubjective agreement about quite a few aspects of our environments (that each of us only knows from his or her own experiences and guesses, without, at least - or so it would seem - ever having the experience of any other creature) it is not possible to interact or communicate with other people. A person who in the same circumstances as others persists in experiencing many kinds of things others do not experience, and who acts on his experiences, has a good chance of being judged mad and dangerous, and to be removed from the society. Back

Note 11: When, in ordinary life, we speak of the colour of the table, we only mean the sort of colour which it will seem to have to a normal spectator from an ordinary point of view under usual conditions of light. But the other colours which appear under other conditions have just as good a right to be considered real; and therefore, to avoid favouritism, we are compelled to deny that, in itself, the table has any one particular colour.

No, that's merely silly. Grass is green; elephants are grey; blood is red; and Russell's hair in his old age was white, which is the same colour as freshly fallen snow. And so on. We may be mistaken about such judgments; things really may have no colours (which are our reactions to light refracted from the surfaces of things); the colours we see may differ (my subjective experience of the colour of blood may be precisely the same as your subjective experience of the colour of grass, even if we never will know this); the colours we agree on may not be as invariant and spotless as we suppose - but the point is and remains that there are many agreements between people on what they seem to see, and it is difficult to understand how people could communicate and interact without many such agreements.

To say that this table does not have any one particular colour generally flies in the face of experience and also seems inconsistent, in that normally one supposes that ordinary things like tables do have a specific colour that all normal people may see in ordinary circumstances, and is due to the paint that covers it or the wood from which it is made. Back.

Note 12: The same thing applies to the texture. With the naked eye one can see the grain, but otherwise the table looks smooth and even. If we looked at it through a microscope, we should see roughnesses and hills and valleys, and all sorts of differences that are imperceptible to the naked eye. Which of these is the 'real' table?

That is just a mistaken question: either appearance of the table is an appearance of the table due to some way of looking at it (simply by the eye or by means of a microscope). That the same thing may present different appearances, especially when looked at in different ways, poses no sensible question about which appearance of a table is the 'real' table: presumably both are different appearances of the same real thing, due to different ways of producing these appearances. Russell's question is like asking whether someone's real length is seen when one sees him on a distance of 100 meters or 10 meters. Back.

Note 13: If, then, we cannot trust what we see with the naked eye, why should we trust what we see through a microscope? Thus, again, the confidence in our senses with which we began deserts us.

This is not so. We have found no good reason not to have confidence in our senses, and indeed all the inferences Russell makes to make us give up our confidence all presuppose confidence in our senses - for we are reading this text, which is, among other things, a visual experience. Back.

Note 14: The shape of the table is no better

This is not quite so: there are people known not to be able to see colours, but there are no people who can see who are not able to see shapes. Indeed, one common distinction that is normally drawn between shapes and colours is that colours are subjective experiences concerning the light refracted from the surfaces of things, and there is nothing in external reality, outside our skins, that corresponds to it, apart from the properties of surfaces to absorb and refract the light that falls on them in some way, while shapes represent how the parts of things are spatially related, and there really is either the perceived or some other spatial relation between the parts of things.

Also, it may be noted that normal people have two ways of directly judging shapes, namely visually and by touch, and one way of directly judging colours. Back

Note 15: (..) as we all have to learn if we try to draw, a given thing looks different in shape from every different point of view

But there is a difference between how the shape of a thing looks from a certain perspective, and how the shape of a thing depends on how its parts are really connected and formed. And we all know that the experience of something X need not at all disclose the real properties of X, just as someone farther away looks smaller, without thereby really shrinking. Back.

Note 16: But the 'real' shape is not what we see; it is something inferred from what we see.

This is confused: A real shape, it seems, is there whether or not we infer it. The shape we see or imagine may be inferred, but if there are shapes at all this inferred shape either corresponds to the real shape or fails to do so. Back.

Note 17: (..) here again the senses seem not to give us the truth about the table itself, but only about the appearance of the table.

In general, what the senses gives us are appearances of things, and the appearances of things give us our ideas about the real things they are appearances of. These ideas may be true or false of the real things (indeed, if there is no real thing this appearance is an appearance of it is a mere figment of the imagination). Back.

Note 18: (..) the various sensations due to various pressures or various parts of the body cannot be supposed to reveal directly any definite property of the table

I do not see why not. It may be supposed (and generally is supposed) that what our senses gives us are not the things themselves but how these appear to us, and that the properties things appear to have may not be the properties they really have. But if it is at all possible to infer the real properties of things from their apparent properties, it seems fair to assume that we make these inferences in many ordinary circumstances of seeing ordinary tables. Also, the sense of 'directly' is hard to get. Back

Note 19: 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 difficult questions at once arise; namely, (1) Is there a real table at all? (2) If so, what sort of object can it be?

None of this has been properly established, and it seems fundamentally confused in a number of respects.

The sense of the italic 'immediately' is difficult to get, but as pointed out in the previous note, our sensations may and probably do inform us correctly about some of the real properties of some of the things we sense (if only because we wouldn't exist if we were mistaken all the time about - all attributes of all - the things that surround us).

Next, people generally assume there are real things they have sensations of, and people generally assume that the properties of things they sense do not all precisely coincide with the real properties of things. And this is no great philosophical insight, but ordinary common sense: people know from experience that they and others may be mistaken about the import of their sensations.

Next, the sense in which people generally assume there are real things they may have sensations of is that they assume that there is a reality, whether they sense it or not, in which are the real things they sense, which have real properties completely independent of what people think or sense.

This certainly is an assumption, and it may be false. But it is also one of the crucial assumptions on which science is based, and also one of the crucial assumptions around which most human interaction is structured, including the making and keeping of agreements, and the pronouncements of the law. Back.

Note 20: Let us give the name of 'sense-data' to the things that are immediately known in sensation: such things as colours, sounds, smells, hardnesses, roughnesses, and so on. We shall give the name 'sensation' to the experience of being immediately aware of these things. Thus, whenever we see a colour, we have a sensation of the colour, but the colour itself is a sense-datum, not a sensation.

This seems a rather useless piece of double terminology. It seems useless and confusing to distinguish "the sensation of X" and "the sense-datum X", especially as it seems that these are to be used in statements like "I have the sensation of X so I have the sense-datum X". Back.

Note 21: 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'. Thus our two questions may be re-stated as follows: (1) Is there any such thing as matter? (2) If so, what is its nature?

To call real things 'physical objects' again duplicates terms rather unnecessarily, but if we assume there are real things it is well to have a term for them and not to make the inference that real things must be as they appear to us in our sensations of them.

However, to lump all real things together under the one name 'matter' again seems to court confusion: Surely, if there are real tables, there are real objects, real properties, real relations (between the real parts or real properties of real objects), and to lump all these things together under the single not very clear term 'matter' seems unwise.

But we do have a provisional definition of 'matter' that makes sense (though probably not to Russell in his 1912 mood): it is simply what really exists, apart from our sensations and imaginations, whatever it may be. Back.

Note 22: The philosopher who first brought prominently forward the reasons for regarding the immediate objects of our senses as not existing independently of us was Bishop Berkeley (1685-1753).

Surely, Heraclite, Buddha, and Plato, to name some, made similar claims much earlier, even though they lacked the distinction of being British. And Buddha reacted to the Hindu philosophers, who were earlier still, and made similar claims. Back

Note 23: (..) that if there are any things that exist independently of us they cannot be the immediate objects of our sensations.

As I have pointed out repeatedly, this is a confusion. Suppose that our sensations are entirely our own reactions to such effects of real things that reach our sense-organs, and suppose that much of our sensations - for example, colours or our feelings of appreciation or disgust about the sensations we have - are not really the properties of the real things we have sensations of, but rather of ourselves or - speaking more precisely - are properties arising from the interaction of ourselves with such effects of things as reach our sense-organs.

Even so, it seems very implausible to assume that none of the properties we sense of things correspond to any of the real properties of the things we sense. The reason this is very implausible - at least on the assumption that there really are things surrounding us, that may both hurt and benefit us - is that we wouldn't survive without a minimum of true knowledge about the environment we are surviving in, and the only ways we seem to have to get such real knowledge, apart from instinct, are sensations and assumptions (based on sensations and fantasies about what the things we sense might really be). Back.

Note 24: He is thus led to regard the 'real' table as an idea in the mind of God. Such an idea has the required permanence and independence of ourselves, without being -- as matter would otherwise be -- something quite unknowable, in the sense that we can only infer it, and can never be directly and immediately aware of it.

Like Russell, we suppose the mark of the real to be that it exists whether or not we experience it. However, Berkeley's assumption that God's mind guarantees this reality seems very involved: why should we not be capable of knowing some of the real properties of the things we see without divine help, and why should the ideas in God's mind be inherently more tractable and understandable to us than real things they are ideas of? Back.

Note 25: In fact, almost all philosophers seem to be agreed that there is a real table. they almost all agree that, however much our sense-data -- colour, shape, smoothness, etc. -- may depend upon us, yet their occurrence is a sign of something existing independently of us, something differing, perhaps, completely from our sense-data whenever we are in a suitable relation to the real table.

So let's indeed make that assumption that there are real tables (and many other real things), and that by 'real' we mean 'existing apart from sensation or imagination, and capable of effecting other real things'.

Furthermore, let's be clear about the reasons for this assumption:

      • We know that not all our sensations are always correct

      • We know that there is a lot of regularity in experience

      • We know that other people agree with us about some of the sensations they have

Note that the first two points are subjective facts (in that each of us knows that he or she occasionally came to believe something on the basis of sensation that later turned out to be not so, at least in the sense that the sensations inferred from the sensations presumed did not eventuate, and each of us remembers many regularities in his experience, of - what seem to be - the same kinds of things in the same sort of circumstances reacting in the same ways), while the last point is, at least, an intersubjective fact. It may seem a little pedantic to spell out these reasons, but in the end intersubjective agreements on subjective experiences such as these are the basis of all further theorizing. Back.

Note 26: Thus what we directly see and feel is merely 'appearance', which we believe to be a sign of some 'reality' behind. But if the reality is not what appears, have we any means of knowing whether there is any reality at all? And if so, have we any means of finding out what it is like?

Surely, on a common sense level, we do, and our means of knowing are systematic trial and error, i.e. we make an assumption about what is really there and what sensations should follow from this, and test whether this assumption is supported by subsequent experiences. Indeed, apart from innate or divinely given knowledge, this way of making assumptions (in the end based on our fantasies and other assumptions) and confirming or infirming them by systematic experiencing seems to be the only way we can find knowledge. Back