Saturday, January 17, 2015

Bertrand Russell Deserves a Seat at Your Table: On Sceptical Essays

I grabbed this book because it was in the Journal’s recommend books for year-end last year. I had read his “Why I am not a Christian,” and was aware of Russell as a philosopher and mathematician. I did not know he was such a clear writer. I have to respect a free  thinking, socialist, atheist from 100 years ago who was not afraid to follow the strength of his convictions even though they led him against the grain. He lost potential jobs, and went to jail for his beliefs. Maybe he was never in any real danger, but I don’t know – still brave.

Reading this book made me think of that hypothetical situation where you can have a dinner with anyone you want, living or dead. I think I’d have Russell at my table. His writing, reading it now, sounds contemporary.  These essays, for the most part, would not be out of place in current conversation. I say for the most part, because there are a couple that strike wrong notes. One essentializes all “Chinese,” the other talks about the benefits of behavorialism and is perhaps too enthuastical about the problems that science could solve. Other than that, I liked all the essays. In fact, I liked them so much that it is hard to point out what was good. I normally read with a pen so I can take notes and engage with the text, but I couldn’t with this book. It just had narrative and argumentative momentum that I couldn’t dent. I instead dog-eared the pages where there was a striking turn of phrase of interesting way of looking at a subject that I hadn’t previously considered. By the end of the book, my wife remarked at just how many dog-ears were in the book. I can’t summarize it here and give it justices. You need to read Russell to appreciate him. I’m just a shadow on the cave wall.