Bertrand Russell, 1957 (National Archives of the Netherlands / Anefo)
For the ancient Greeks, philosophy was not merely a theoretical exercise. The true philosopher or “lover of wisdom” was committed to living a contemplative and self-disciplined life in the pursuit of truth. The dedicated practice of philosophy promised not only a deeper understanding of oneself and the world, but the ability to meet life’s challenges with serenity and courage.
By the 19th century, however, philosophy had evolved into a specialized branch of university research and teaching. As an academic study, the philosophical search for truth became increasingly detached from the concerns and problems of daily life. This development was noted by the American author Henry David Thoreau, who lamented that “there are nowadays professors of philosophy, but not philosophers.” To love wisdom, insisted Thoreau, is “to live according to its dictates…. It is to solve some of the problems of life, not only theoretically, but practically.”
Thoreau’s concern was echoed in the following century by the British philosopher Bertrand Russell. Writing in the shadow of the Second World War and the looming threat of nuclear holocaust, Russell spoke of the urgent need to recover the practice of philosophy in everyday life. It is wisdom that we need more than ever, he wrote, “if the new powers invented by technicians, and handed over by them to be wielded by ordinary men and women, are not to plunge mankind into an appalling cataclysm.”
Although Russell is now celebrated mainly for his contributions to the fields of logic and mathematics, Steven M. Emmanuel, dean of the Susan S. Goode School of Arts and Humanities at Virginia Wesleyan University, contends that his lesser-known writings on the practical value of philosophy contain important and timely lessons for us in these turbulent and uncertain times. This lively presentation of Russell’s thought explores how the practice of philosophy can help us create a better, happier life and a more peaceful world.
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