In these lectures, B. Russell explains in his characteristic sarcastic style his vision on science and society, on politics, philosophy and mankind in general.
Science, knowing and doing
Science has two functions: to know things and to do things.
It dispelled traditional beliefs and gave new insights into man's body, psychology and place in the universe. New technologies (gunpowder, the mariner's compass) and new drugs were invented.
Moreover, the scientific spirit should lead to a world of free inquiry and intellectual progress without political or religious dogmatic regimes, which fear the crumbling of their authority through this spirit.
Scientific knowledge gives man the power to do things, good ones as well as evil ones. It lead to the Industrial Revolution, but also to new weaponry.
B. Russell unveils the hidden meaning of John Dewey's pragmatism. `Truth' is substituted by `utility'. `Fact' is not a fundamental concept for the definition of `truth'. Pragmatism is inherently connected with force, in order to change society.
B. Russell defines rightly man's behavior as basically egoistic: in most circumstances egoism is necessary for survival. But, he also believes that through this egoism mankind will choose its own extermination (the atom bomb).
Politics (education, holism, world government)
For B. Russell, education of the young should not be turned into pure propaganda for a political regime.
He condemns sarcastically holism: `the good of the multitude is a sum of the goods of the individuals composing it and not a new and separate good. When it is pretended that the State has a good different from that of the citizens, what is really meant is that the good of the government or a ruling class is more important than that of other people.' Holism is simply another version of arbitrary rule.
For B. Russell, man's suicidal behavior should be countered by a world government which should have a monopoly of armed force in order to impose peace. This `solution' has been rightly heavily criticized by Karl Jaspers, who remarks that this monopoly can all too easily be used by (or to install) a world oligarchy.
The ultimate aim of all `doing' should be the happiness of mankind, based on love and compassion. Man should create a good society where everybody is useful (without excessive hours of labor), where everybody is as far as possible secure from undeserved misfortune and where everybody has the opportunity for personal initiative. To build that kind of society, democracy, trade unionism and birth control are indispensable.
This book written by a superb free mind is a must read for all those interested in the world we live in.
3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on 25 October 2010
Seven essays: six first given at Ruskin College, Oxford (not part of the University, but a sort of token place for aspirational working class types). I haven't found dates of the talks, but they probably postdate Orwell's 1984, published in 1948, The final essay 'Can a Scientific Society be Stable?' was given in 1949. The collection was first published in the UK in 1952.
Very important topic - possiby the most important there is, since science seems to be the only possible way to general happiness. It's therefore an ambitious work. (Note: there's extraordinary nonsense promoted about this book - my guess being because professional liars won't address Russell on US war crimes in Vietnam).
Russell's book isn't entirely easy to interpret though; because--
 His examples vary in length and emphasis - trivial points may get lot of exposition, complicated ones only a bit; rather like an impromptu speech. He sometimes doesn't keep to the point of the chapter titles; thus 'The Effects of Scientific Techniques' includes material on organisations (much of it taken from his book 'Power') which could apply to Chinese mandarins or the medieval church. His generalisations are often European-based.
 Possibly because he was consciously lecturing to the uneducated, some explanations are over-simply worded, and inconsistent with the rest of his book. For example, when discussing democracy, he talks of people as having three components - hero, common man, and cog. 'Hero' seems to refer to Carlyle's 'Hero Worship' and Mussolini; but turns out to mean someone allowed personal initiative. 'Common man' means someone with everyday security - Russell, being British, takes this for granted. 'Cog' means a useful member of society - but could mean devastingly impersonal exploitation. There are quite a few confusing pages of this type.
 Russell does not clearly distinguish science from plain trial-and-error empiricism. For instance, he says cotton processing in the southern USA was scientific; but it was just a machine, perhaps no more scientific than a prehistoric weaving machine.
 Being a philosopher, he overstates the importance of philosophers. He includes the passage from Marx saying the point of philosophy is to change the world. Yet obviously people have wanted to change the world for millennia! Russell thought medieval philosophers were genunely moved by other-worldly considerations, rather than just getting paid by the Church along with artists and others.
 He's very influenced by then-recent history: Germany, USSR, Japan, USA.
Anyway, after those cautions, here's what Russell says:
Chapter 1: Science and Tradition. Russell trots through prehistory and history - old favourites, including demons, eclipses, Galileo, witchcraft, through to Newton and Darwin. He discusses not so much what science is, as its effects on non-scientists' mentalities: the world as not having 'purpose' and being autonomous, rather than e.g. pushed around by Gods; the importance of evidence; man as being a tiny part of the universe.
Chapter 2: The General Effects of Scientific Technique - the longest chapter of the book. Russell lists inventions - gunpowder, compass, steam engine, electricity, telegraph, internal combustion engine and oil, flying. (Bear in mind that for about half Russell's life a car was a novelty). Then the social effects: 'War has been.. the chief source of social cohesion; and.. the strongest incentive to technical progress. Large groups have a better chance of victory than small ones..' Russell goes on to food and population, then industry and organisation and officials - he was concerned about this; one of his earliest books discusses the problem jobs being given for cunning or nepotism rather than genuine merit. He also discusses 'mass psychology' in the usual rather condescending way, as though personally immune. Quite a good chapter - deals with vast issues.
Chapter 3: Scientific Techniques in an Oligarchy. This is largely about the USSR; Russell gives information on forced Labour in the Arctic, mass deaths and the Soviet system, though without sources; much of his writing of the time (e.g. 'Human Society..') says this too. His introductory remarks on oligarchies (i.e. rule by smallish numbers) states that the 'Rule of the Saints' introduced in the English Civil War was the first example of power confined to one creed, which must be news to Muslims and Jews and others. This chapter includes much 'dystopian' material, and is intended to explore what might happen under scientific oligarchies. It's not a set of recommendations, as some rather stupid comments on Russell claim. Russell ends optimistically: 'I do not believe that dictatorship is a lasting form of scientific society - unless (and this proviso is important) it can become world-wide.'
Chapter 4: Democracy and Scientific Technique complements the previous chapter. What's science like in democracies? - Russell surveys early enthusiasts for democracy (he dates it from about the 18th century) as compared with more sober prophets. There's a lot on weariness, despair, people liking wars (Russell was in the US at the time of WW2!), problems of huge constituenceies etc. This is where his hero, common man, and cog aspects of people is discussed, in my view a bit confusingly.
Chapter 5: Science and War - the shortest chapter. Surprisngly optimistic, given Russell believed the H-Bomb threats. He mostly discusses effects on populations; he believed, like A J P Taylor, that modern war doesn't give rise to that many casualties - he seems to have taken this idea from armies in the Bible being wiped out by sudden epidemics. He doesn't seem aware of flu after WW1, and the sheer absolute numbers of deaths - very likely an effect of wartime censorship and lies.
Chapter 6: Science and Values. Marx, Dewey and other pragmatists, Fichte and others are quoted for their philosophies. This chapter had a reference to Christian love which, his autobiography states, attracted a deluge of letters from Christians congratulting him on his conversion. Russell deplores fanaticism. He tries to list 'bad things it [science] can diminish, and good things it can increase.' The final part is anti-nation: he says 'Nationalist propaganda, in any violent form, will have to be illegal.' Russell of course assumed the 20th century wars were caused by nationalism. It's now known that the Balfour Declaration, US entry into WW1, the funding by Jews of Bolshevism, and of Churchill, has a huge effect; Russell was aware of much of this, but the 20th century fashion was to hush it up. However, if someone is trying to avoid or minimise wars, presumably it helps to know the cuases of wars.
Chapter 7: Can a Scientific Society be Stable? - Fascinating attempt to survey the conditions needed, including physical and psychological stability. Russell comments, like Malthus, that wars or general misery will happen - and unlike Malthus, he mentions birth control too. Russell even includes the possibility of Asians exterminating Europeans. One of his conditions of course is a single government possessing a monopoly of force and therefore able to enforce peace. (Russell thinks in terms of peace between nations or countries; probably religious, cult, natural disaster-driven, and other events might slip through).
5 stars for adventurousness and considerable general knowledge, depsite the weaknesses. It would not surprise me if this book (and his Reith Lectures of 1948 - 'Authority and the Individual' - had a great deal of impact at the time, and some of his suggestions have been taken up or becaome part of 'conventional wisdom'; though of course potential elite people who were influenced tended to discount the democratic parts of Russell's argument, leading to today's skewed NWO protagonists.