In writing about one of the most urgent problems of our time, Bertrand Russell declined to be called a philosopher. He refused to draw any connection between his campaigning journalism against nuclear weapons and philosophy. I shall argue that this was a mistake.
Rather than writing as a philosopher, Russell claimed to write solely as a journalist and a spokesperson for common sense.1 Admittedly, in metaphysics and epistemology, he was prepared to leave common sense far behind. For, as he says in The Problems of Philosophy (1912):
“The man who has no tincture of philosophy goes through life imprisoned in the prejudices derived from common sense, from the habitual beliefs of his age or his nation, and from convictions which have grown up in his mind without the cooperation or consent of his deliberate reason.”
However, in his campaigning journalism, Russell was prepared to leave philosophy far behind and to embrace common sense. Thus, for example, in Common Sense and Nuclear Weapons (1959), Russell positioned himself unequivocally on the side of common sense.
But what exactly did he mean by common sense? To the best of my knowledge, Russell himself never subjected the concept to any sharply focussed analysis, but it is usually taken to mean something like folk wisdom. More specifically, it is thought that the dictates of common sense are universal, transcending the conventions of a particular time and place. This is usually assumed implicitly, although in the philosophy of Thomas Reid it is an explicit claim.
However, common sense, at least as it is appealed to in political arguments, is never, in fact, universal.
In politics, the authority of common sense proclamations is derived from two elements: (1) they are known with confidence; and (2) it is believed that all other right-thinking people also know them with confidence. Thus, typically, if I ask why I believe something with confidence, the answer is that all others whom I think of as right-thinking people also seem to know it with confidence. And why do I think they are right-thinking people? Well, they seem to be confident of the same things as me.
But, of course, although by this reasoning we wave what Kant called “the magic wand of common sense,” and although we ourselves may thereby be convinced of the universality of our common sense pronouncements, we have not transcended the conventional wisdom of our particular society.
Little wonder then that Russell’s biographer, Ray Monk, describes Russell’s journalistic work as (with a few exceptions): glib; over-polemical; over-confident; utopian; wilfully shallow (playing to the gallery); concentrating on offering instant solutions; ignoring questions of policy; and with a tendency to malign those of different opinions. One is prone to write this way when one aims to speak on behalf of common sense. That is not to say that his journalism was ineffective – for his training in philosophy ensured that his arguments were made with great clarity. However, in politics, we do not transcend our particular historical circumstances simply by appeal to the arbiter of common sense.
For the contents of common sense are malleable, and in social and political history we can see how the contents and the concept itself have changed.
At this point, readers may bring to mind, as a possible counter-example, the case for American independence made in Thomas Paine’s Common Sense (1776). However, for many of Paine’s readers the case for independence only became common sense once they had read the leaflet and been convinced of Paine’s argument. For the contents of common sense are malleable, and in social and political history we can see how the contents and the concept itself have changed. (The former point is made by Gramsci in The Study of Philosophy (1932). For a political history of common sense, see Sophia Rosenfeld’s Common Sense: A Political History (2011). Rosenfeld argues that the concept of common sense, as we now use it, dates only from the late seventeenth century.)
None of which is to deny that in certain circumstances the conservative power of common sense can be of great benefit. If I see a small child wandering too close to a fire or to the edge of a cliff it is common sense that I should call them back, and maintain the peaceful status quo. In these examples, it is a good thing that I can rely on common sense instead of having to debate what to do. In these instances, common sense is, “as invaluable as the virtue of conformity in the army and navy” (Thoreau). However, in order to change the world – to divert it from the hazards of its unthinking drift – there is much to be said in favour of philosophy or “uncommon sense” (Thoreau).
It is the questioning of convention that – so far – has kept us from nuclear war. For example, on 27 October 1962, during the Cuban missile crisis, a senior officer, Vassili Arkhipov, aboard a Soviet submarine disagreed with his two fellow officers that a nuclear weapon should be launched. The decision could only be cleared on the authority of all three officers. Arkhipov went against the common sense of his fellow officers. Just over twenty years later, there was another example. Stanislav Petrov was on duty in a bunker near Moscow when the alarms started warning of five incoming intercontinental missiles. Protocol demanded that he immediately inform his superiors. “I was 50-50 as to whether it was a real or a false alarm. In this situation I decided that maybe it’s my mistake, but I don’t want to start World War Three.” It was a false alarm. Arkhipov ignored the opinion of his fellow officers and Petrov ignored protocol. I do not know whether either had an interest in philosophy but both may have had a talent for it.
It is the questioning of convention that – so far – has kept us from nuclear war.
But now let us challenge common sense more directly. If one is making the point that because nuclear weapons have coincided with a period of peace for x many years that does not entail that they will coincide with a period of peace lasting x+1 years, then one is making a philosophical argument based on Hume’s work on inductive reasoning. “That the sun will not rise tomorrow is no less intelligible a proposition, and implies no more contradiction than that it will rise.” Neither the argument about peace lasting x+1 years nor the argument about the sun rising tomorrow are part of common sense. Indeed, common sense might tend to disagree.
Bernard Wiliams once posed the question, “what is the point of doing philosophy if you’re not extraordinarily good at it?” Russell, after the Second World War, may have thought that, in the face of the nuclear threat, this was a question that no longer mattered.
In ‘The Duty of a Philosopher in this Age’ (1964) he wrote that the philosopher’s duty was now to forget philosophy and to study “the probable effects of a nuclear war.”
“He must then, devote himself, by whatever means are open to him, to persuading other people to agree with him as to these effects and to joining him in whatever protest shows the most chance of success. … If they do not fulfil this duty they are accomplices to mass murder.”
In this late work, Russell seems to be in agreement with Marx: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.”
The counter-argument is that a philosopher who forgets philosophy is likely to be less effective at instigating change than one who remembers it. The philosophy in question does not need to break new ground. As we have seen, it can be something as relatively elementary as Hume on induction. Thus, Russell had no need to forsake philosophy in his campaign against nuclear weapons; rather, he had need of it.
It is, incidentally, untrue that Russell ever described common sense as “the metaphysics of savages.” This well-known misquote is actually from an early review of his book Our Knowledge of the External World (1914). ↩︎
This article is based on a longer article entitled ‘Russell on Technology and Common Sense’ Human Affairs, 2020, vol.30 (4): 518-25.↩︎