Russell was not really an iconoclast, much less a rebel, least of all any revolutionary. His speciality was stating the obvious when orthodoxy did not want it stated, and pointing out what ought to have been obvious when lumpen conventional opinion could not be bothered looking for it. He also made statements and advanced arguments at times that were just plumb wrong or at least implausible, which makes him like any of the rest of us; but for the most part when he advanced opinions that went against the grain he didn't do it simply to annoy because he knew it teased, it usually meant that there was something wrong with the grain. He wasn't really a preacher either, in the sense that he had no great message of his own. His mind was basically analytical, and what drove him was a wish to counter what he saw as error, often dangerous error. He had a strong theoretical bent as everyone knows, but what marks him out among the generality of philosophers is his strong desire to communicate with not just students and other specialists but with the world at large.
This collection was published in 1950, and its contents date from the 15 years leading up to that time. They include his tongue-in-cheek self-obituary which he thought would be printed in his 91st year, although in the end he lived to age 97, finally falling victim to influenza; but what they are mainly concerned with is politics and philosophy. One of the political pieces is The Superior Virtue of the Oppressed, making the perfectly sensible point that the oppressed have no superior virtue. The reason why we should support the oppressed, it seems obvious to me, is simply that they are oppressed and not that they possess some sainthood bestowed on them by the sentimental. Otherwise his chief political preoccupation is with nuclear weapons, of which he was a celebrated opponent just as I myself am an obscure one. Russell sees the solution to the problem as being world government, and I suppose it's fair to say that this scion of the English aristocracy has next to no sense of Realpolitik. On the other hand I would say that he has put his finger on what I would see as the reality of the issue to this extent - once we have unlocked the atom we are playing with the power of Creation itself, as Jimmy Carter once said. It is something that is bigger than any nation, bigger than the entire planet, bigger than the entire galaxy. To make it an instrument of national policy is something that can be controlled at national level only for so long, and if we are to keep it under control internationally the individual nations, however important they think it makes them, are going to have to relinquish their private grip on it. Russell could not bring about rationality in the perception of the issue, still less can I expect to, but sooner or later, for better reasons or for worse, we are all going to have to.
When it comes to the philosophical side, Russell characteristically starts with a piece entitled Philosophy for Laymen, and in this and some later chapters he provides a handy little guide to which of them said what. His fearless common sense is at its self-confident best in some of this, as in his withering contempt for Plato's monstrous Republic. It has long seemed to me that abstract reasoning has a capacity for unsettling people's world-view in a completely unnecessary way. At the risk of seeming philistine, I am more than glad of his authoritative support for my own view that a great deal of the grander type of philosophy is plain old rubbish, the problem being to articulate why this is so. At the time of these essays, the linguistic school of epistemology mainly associated with Oxford does not seem to have gained the ascendancy that it would soon do. There has been a reaction against it on perceived grounds (often perceived rightly) of trivialisation of the philosophical process, but I maintain that it performed a major service. Russell's own way of attacking some of his great predecessors is slightly ad hominem, detecting psychological and biographical reasons for their way of thinking, and he seems to have resented the approach of the elegant master of all the linguistic philosophers J L Austin. However even without help from Oxford it seems to me that Russell could have demolished the systematic scepticism of Descartes simply by saying that if we are to carry doubt to these lengths we might as well doubt that we are doubting while we are about it. Again I would have thought that he had various simple replies to Bishop Berkeley's famous proposition that we only have an `idea' of (say) a tree. One would be that when we stop looking at the tree all that we remove is this `idea' and it all proves nothing about the independent reality of the tree. Another would be that if a man were killed by a falling tree because he didn't see it falling his misfortune was not that he had an idea of the tree but that he had no idea of it. When it comes to confronting a genuine giant like Hume, Russell could have done with the linguistic method. If I may make so bold, my answer to Hume's finding that `cause' cannot be identified might be `Who said it could?' It`s not something that can be abstracted from individual propositions of the kind `A is caused by X' any more than `reality' can be so extracted from propositions to the effect `A is real', as Austin so brilliantly demonstrated.
The attacks on entrenched opinions seem rather old hat these days, at least to the irreligious like myself. However they stay entrenched in some quarters, and the wit and gusto of Russell's ridicule should therefore stay entrenched too. All good intellectual smelling-salts.