on April 8, 2000
I bought this book because it was recommended for further reading in my philosophy class. I figured it was going to be a pure drag...you know, huge words, vague sentences, so on and so on. I have to say that this book is the complete opposite. Bertrand Russell brings the topics right down to earth and explains them in a way that the average person can understand. The last chapter, "The Value of Philosophy" is written with beautiful style and is an enjoyment to read. Here is a quote from this chapter:
"Philosophy, though unable to tell us with certainty what is the true answer to the doubts which it raises, is able to suggest many possibilities which enlarge our thoughts and free them from the tyranny of custom. Thus, while diminishing our feeling of certainty as to what things are, it greatly increases our knowledge as to what they may be; it removes the somewhat arrogant dogmatism of those who have never traveled into the region of liberating doubt, and it keeps alive our sense of wonder by showing familiar things in an unfamiliar aspect."
This book definitely has sparked in me an interest in philosophy. If you are even remotely interested in the subject, I recommend you buying it too.
on March 14, 2001
This book was my first foray into philosophy, and surprisingly, it proved to be very enjoyable. For many, just the word "philosophy" evokes images of ancient thinkers, yet not in a very appealing light: old men sitting around, absent-mindedly stroking their chins as they ponder the meaning of life.
Yet, philosophy does not deserve this reputation. It is not just some hobby for stodgy elders, or those with nothing better to do. Rather, it is quite the opposite; it is an endlessly intriguing subject, one which causes you to consider things you may have never thought of before. Survive the test, and the reaffirmation that results will be worth it.
Philosophy contains no easy answers. It poses a myriad of questions which can force one to doubt, and even reexamine, one's beliefs -- even those which previously seemed so resolute. This may at first be difficult or discombobulating, but persistance is rewarded with an even stronger foundation than before.
I will not attempt to summarize this book, as people before me have already explained it sufficiently. However, I will say that this book was a great influence, and a wonderful introduction to the world of philosophy. For such an abstruse and "deep" matter, one would think that most would be intimidated; however, Russell handles it splendidly. He writes in a lucid, unpretentious manner, and spares the reader any unnecessary confusion.
Even to this day, my friends tease me about "philosophy of a table." It is impossible for me to adequately describe this book, but let me say that it is brilliant and refreshing. For me, philosophy is not meant to give an individual a headache. It is simply for those who wish to gain a better understanding of themselves and their surroundings. And this book, exceptional in its quality, is an excellent choice to get you started on that interminable journey towards the ever so elusive Truth.
on March 13, 2005
"Philosophy aims primarily at knowledge," says Bertrand Russell. "But it cannot be maintained that philosophy has had any very great measure of success in its attempts to provide definite answers to its questions."
With that caveat, which comes in the last chapter of The Problems of Philosophy, Russell defines in part what philosophy is and what it can accomplish. The definition casts a rather dim light over the field of philosophy, calling into questions its value as a discipline worthy of our attention. But Russell goes on to say that philosophy's value won't be found in its ability to provide answers ("since no definite answers can, as a rule, be known to be true"). Instead, philosophy is valuable "for the sake of the questions themselves."
"These questions enlarge our conception of what is possible, enrich our intellectual imagination and diminish the dogmatic assurance which closes the mind against speculation," notes Russell. He says our minds are "rendered great" when we contemplate "the greatness of the universe." This enables our minds to form a "union with the universe which constitutes its highest good."
In the pages that precede this final chapter on the value of philosophy, Russell highlights the questions he considers to be most "positive" and "constructive." In his view, philosophy's most important questions relate to epistemology, or the theory of knowledge. As a result, most of this book deals with questions like these:
What is the difference between appearance and reality?
What is a belief? What is the relationship between beliefs and facts?
What, if anything, can we know for certain?
What is the difference between deductive and inductive reasoning?
What is intuitive knowledge?
What is truth? How can we distinguish between truth and falsehood?
Russell doesn't always provide "definite answers" to these questions. Yet he does a marvelous job of helping us to think through them in creative and logically sound ways.
The Problems of Philosophy is a brief book that packs a nice punch. It is easy to read, smoothly written, and will likely appeal almost anyone interested in philosophy. Perhaps the biggest problem with the Problems of Philosophy is its narrow scope. The book fails completely to address many of the problems that people often associate with philosophy. Because of this, I would give the book four stars, not the five shown above. Russell makes almost no mention of ethics or morality. He also avoids God, religion, evil, value, aesthetics, philosophy of mind, and the list goes on. But this is a flaw that can be forgiven - for what Russell sacrifices in scope, he makes up for in clarity and style. He often attaches practical examples to more abstract ideas, and this makes the problems of philosophy more understandable for everyone.
One may agree or not with Russell's assertions, but most will appreciate his ability to take some of philosophy's classic problems and make them digestible, almost entertaining to the average reader. This is an enjoyable book that is just as relevant today as when it was first published in 1912.
on August 19, 2001
When one considers that the great philosophers of the twentieth century stand on the shoulders of Bertrand Russell, Alfred North Whitehead, A. J. Ayer, G. E. Moore, and Ludwig Wittgenstein, one has to place Russell in the foreground as the philosophers' philosopher. He writes with clarity and lucidity. His concerns are largely logical and epistemological. And this book centers around his principal concerns.
I doubt that Russell would write this same book today, but I also doubt that he would fundamentally alter the positions he takes, if he were writing today. There is something neat, eloquent, and elegant about his epistemological premises that make this work (well beyond its 17th printing and more than eighty years old) such a venerable treasure trove. Could his positions be better articulated? Yes, but not by much. Would he delve more deeply into logic? Almost certainly. And he does, in other books written during his lifetime.
This book is really for the novice. My only complaint is that the novice will probably remain lost if his readings did not encompass more logic and criticism of rational and empirical epistemology. What makes Russell a true "modern" in contemporary philosophy is his bridge to resolving both the rationalist and empiricist schools of thought. One not knowing these dichotomies might find Russell's resolution difficult to follow. Elsewhere in the book, Russell identifies "three" rules of thought, when these rules are no longer considered all that are extent. Generally, there are seven, sometimes nine, taught in most symbolic logic courses, and this discrepancy may needlessly cause confusion. So while the book is written for the novice, it bears re-reading after covering other contemporary writers.
Russell and the others mentioned above are often associated with logical atomism, either directly or indirectly. Reading Russell or Ayer gives the student the best opportunity to do philosophy whilst learning it first hand. Both are explicit writers with Ayer perhaps having the upper hand. But, as with any philosophical school, such as logical atomism, there is always a counter reaction, and A. L. Austin's "Sense and Sensibility" is just such a reproach. Russell, like Ayer, uses the construct of "sense data" to explain the theory of knowledge; Austin and Gilbert Ryle redress both author's use of such "metaphysical" interpolations, which makes for an interesting contrast. Any reader of Russell or Ayer should counterbalance his reading with Austin's work.
"The Problems of Philosophy" is not without gaps that may leave the reader puzzled by the omissions. Perhaps they weren't as obvious when Russell wrote this book, but they are clearer now in hindsight. An egregious omission is the absence of anything to do with ethics or moral theory. Since ethics is one of the few domains particular to philosophy alone, this omission is particularly troublesome in a book of this name. If I were to title the book, it would be "The Problems of Epistemology."
on July 2, 2002
As others have commented, this is a very good introduction to the basic topics of philosophy from a great 20th century philosopher. Russell focuses almost entirely on epistemology in this book, offering a thorough grounding of the most fundamental issues of human knowledge. The writing is very clear and straightforward in a way that is good for both the philosopher and general public. I couldn't have dreamed of a better writing style for such a book topic.
I gave the book 4 stars instead of 5 because the focus is pretty much entirely on epistemology and I feel Russell does not discuss metaphysics or ethics as much as he could have. But don't let that discourage you...this book is valuable to the philosophical newcomer.
on March 8, 2006
This book is a model of exposition, covering an amazing amount of ground in just over 150 pages - and the excellent writing makes it seem even shorter than that. It is not really a standard introduction to all of philosophy, however, since it deals mainly with questions of epistemology. But as an introduction to that branch of philosophy, it is definitely one of the best. Among other things, it includes Russell's famous chapter "On Induction", criticisms of idealism, of Kant, and (perhaps surprisingly) of empiricism, and a defense of the correspondence theory of truth.
The five star rating does not mean that I agree with everything in it, however. Russell himself came to disagree with much of what he said in this book (e.g., with respect to his views on universals). But in spite of being somewhat dated, it is definitely worthwhile, especially for the beginning student.
on October 24, 2002
This is my favorite book of Bertrand Russell's, both as an introductory and technical work, and it is probably so because he wrote it before he went too deeply into analytical and empiricist philosophy to remember his rationalist roots. ...His summaries of Rationalism vs. Empiricism are also excellent, though 20th century rationalism is probably today what he describes as the middle ground position between both views in his book. Most 20th century rationalists accept the *causal* importance of sensory perception in forming many *a priori* beliefs, so the new term is not *a priori* knowledge, but *a priori* justification. Empiricism is the dominant school in philosophy today, but I think that will change in time because empiricism cannot justify many of its epistemological conclusions in any way that do not undermine the justificatory role of thought.
Some of the accounts of "sense data" and "knowledge by description" are a bit tortured, partly because Russell tried to avoid metaphysics as much as possible, and I personally do not believe that they are ultimately correct. However, the discussions are still good introductions. People who read more rationalist philosophy from the likes of Brand Blanshard and Laurence Bonjour as well as analytic philosophers like David Armstrong will get a better insignt into where the real debates about some of these issues lie.
On the whole, a good introduction to philosophy, even though it doesn't touch upon ethics and politics. However, philosophy is a difficult subject and one book, even the best introduction, cannot make clear all the problems that some of the best minds in history have wrestled over...
on April 2, 2012
Talk about a man ahead of his time. Simply amazing that he was writing this stuff sometimes 100 years ago. A pity too how little we have come in some of these areas. Also a pity we do not really have his caliber of thinker today. If you are interested in epistemology this is a great book. I teach Theory of Knowledge and would make this required reading if I did not think high school students would not be able to fully appreciate it.
on November 1, 2000
This is a very solid, and good introduction to philosophy by one of the greatest english philosophers of the last 200 years. Of course, one needs to read other philosophy books as well to complete any intro to philosophy.
I give this book 4 stars though because Russell kinda sweeps some issues under the rug, and I feel he does this out of bias because they present problems for his personal philosophical doctrines. He also pronounces himself as a champion over some doctrines of philosophy, and does so without much grace. He thinks a lot of himself.
However, this book is still a good book to get you thinking about commonly discussed issues of philosophy.
on October 5, 2003
As a beginner in the study of philosophy, this book gave me much more than a clear and concise introduction to the subject by one of its great masters. It gave me an inspiring, enlightening glimpse of how philosophy could boost my capacity to enjoy life and become a better person.
As pointed out by a previous reviewer, the last chapter of the book, "The Value of Philosophy", is a beautiful reflection on the personal rewards that result from philosophical contemplation. This chapter articulates an insight that grows slowly inside the reader throughout the book, caused by the amazement of being exposed to great philosophical questions for the first time.
"...philosophy has a value (perhaps its chief value) through the greatness of the objects which it contemplates, and the freedom from narrow and personal aims resulting from this contemplation... The mind which has become accustomed to the freedom and impartiality of philosophic contemplation will preserve something of the same freedom and impartiality in the world of action and emotion... The impartiality which, in contemplation, is the unalloyed desire for truth, is the very same quality of mind which, in action, is justice, and in emotion is that universal love which can be given to all, and not only to those who are judged useful or admirable."
If what sparked your curiosity about philosophy in the first place was the intuition that it would make you grow as a person in a very important sense, then this book is for you!