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Bertrand Russell's Theory of Knowledge in "The Problems of Philosophy"


            In his book The Problems of Philosophy,[1] Bertrand Russell defends a Representationalist view of epistemology, and the realist claim that there is a mind-independent reality. In this short paper we will briefly summarize Russell’s claims about how we know, followed by an analysis of his claims.

            In the opening paragraph Russell claims that philosophy is searching for certainty.[2] We assume, uncritically, according to Russell, the certainty of many things, “which, on a closer scrutiny, are found to be so full of apparent contradictions that only a great amount of thought enables us to know what it is we really may believe.”[3] The more we learn about the world, this reality in which we find ourselves, the more we realize that we know very little for sure. The more we learn, the less we are certain about what we thought we knew.

            We think, says Russell, that we should begin, in our search for certainty, “with our present experiences, and in some sense, no doubt, knowledge is to be derived from them.”[4] However, as Russell goes on to claim, what we think that we are experiencing can easily be doubted. This doubt comes, primarily, from the problem of change.


The Problem of Change

            Russell brings up the age-old problem of change. This problem has plagued philosophers since the pre-socratics. In order to explain the problem of change Russell distinguishes between appearance and reality. This distinction results in what may be called sense-skepticism. In order to see Russell’s point, it is necessary to give some examples.

            In order to prove that what we think that we perceive, and what really is, are different, Russell gives examples that are based upon colour, texture, shape, and the physical constitution of things. Using the example of a table he shows us that our perception of its colour changes depending on the amount of light in the room, depending on where we are standing, depending on how close we are to the table and on how the light reflects off of the table towards our eyes.[5] There is, furthermore, a difference between our perception of the texture of the table, and the way that it really is. For example, we see the table and think that it is smooth, but when we touch it we realize that it has dents, ridges, crevasses, etc.[6]

            Things do not improve when we turn to shape. The shape of the table changes based upon our position. If we look directly down on it, from above, it seems to be a rectangle. However, if we look at it from the side, it’s shape changes. In fact, moving around the table we see it changing before our eyes.[7] The same is true of the physical constitution of the table. Russell says, “But the sensation we obtain depends on how hard we press the table and also upon what part of the body we press with.”[8]

            These facts of observation must lead, according to Russell, to a skepticism concerning the trust-worthiness of our senses. Russell expresses this sentiment as follows: “Thus it becomes evident that the real table, if there is one, is not the same as what we immediately experience by sight or touch or hearing. The real table, if there is one, is not immediately known to us at all, but must be an inference from what is immediately known.”[9] We must doubt our senses, as they seem to deceive us. Russell is beginning his philosophical explorations in the same way that Descartes began. Russell, in fact, praises Descartes for having performed a great service to philosophy, “by inventing the method of doubt, and by showing that subjective things are the most certain.”[10]

            Following Descartes, Russell casts further doubt on our capacity to know, with certainty, anything about reality. He claims that “There is no logical impossibility in the supposition that the whole of life is a dream, in which we ourselves create all the objects that come before us.”[11] Russell’s conclusion concerning our knowledge of mind-exterior reality is that, “In one sense it must be admitted that we can never prove the existence of things other than ourselves and our experiences.”[12]

How we Know

           This entire project, by which doubt is thrown upon our capacity to know anything other than the interior of our minds, and our own sensations, is based upon a certain view of knowledge. Russell explains that our knowledge of mind-exterior reality is simply a series of inferences based upon our sensations of sense-data. Sense data, for Russell, are “the things that are immediately known in sensation.”[13] Sensation is “the experience of being immediately aware of these things.”[14] In the preceding sentence, when he says ‘these things’, Russell means the sense-data.

            According to this outline of man’s knowledge of the mind-exterior world, man cannot know it. “The colour [sense-data] is that of which we are immediately aware, and the awareness itself is the sensation.”[15] We are not, however, in direct contact with the things outside our minds. These things outside our minds, Russell says, are what we call ‘physical objects.’[16]

            The picture that is being painted by Russell, could, perhaps, be best understood by thinking about men in a submarine. They have no direct contact with anything outside of the submarine. Due to that fact, they are obliged to use highly specialized instruments in order to discover what is going on outside of the tin can in which they are living. Based upon the data which is collected by the instruments the sailors are able to infer the existence of things outside the submarine. Based upon whether or not the object is changing position, and at what speed it is changing position, the sailors are able to infer either that they are alone, or that they are in the company of a whale, perhaps, or another submarine. They cannot step outside of the submarine to verify that what their instruments are telling them is true. They must trust their instruments, and act upon what they are being told.

            If this is how man knows mind-exterior reality, then it is only appropriate to doubt our ability to really know anything precise about reality. We must, therefore, do as Russell does, and try to prove that there really is a mind-exterior reality. Of course, this is only an argument about probability, but it is the best we have.

Critiquing Russell’s Epistemology

            One of the problems that arise from Russell’s view of knowledge is that it is impossible to move from within the mind to the outside world. If we can only know sensations of sense-data, which are only appearances, and not reality itself, then how do we know that our sensations actually correspond to anything? In order to know that our inferences about reality are true, we have to get past our sensations, to reality itself, in order to see if our sensations correspond to what is out there. However, as Russell so aptly shows, this is impossible. If Russell is right, then his view seems to entail Idealism, or complete skepticism about a mind-exterior reality.

            It is not, however, necessary to accept such a view of how man gain’s knowledge. Russell’s doubts, about our capacity to sense reality rather than an appearance, based as they are upon change and our false assumptions about reality caused by our senses, seems to demonstrate that we do have direct contact with reality. The reason for this conclusion is that it is impossible to know that we are wrong, without first knowing what is right, or, at least, knowing how to discover what is right. Therefore, the fact that we sometimes come to false conclusions based upon the way we interpret our “sensations” demonstrates that we do arrive, most of the time, at right conclusions.

            Secondly, and along the same lines as the observation in the preceding paragraph, the only way to know that we are dreaming is to know what it is like to be awake. If Russell is right, in using dream states as proof that we cannot have direct access to the world, then he cannot ever know that he is not dreaming. It seems, therefore, that we have no reason to doubt our senses, or our experience of the real world, and, therefore, should abandon Russell’s theory.


[1]Bertrand Russell, “The Problems of Philosophy,” in Modern and Contemporary, vol. 2 of Classics of Philosophy, ed. Louis P. Pojman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 1086-1138.

[2]Ibid., 1086.

[3]Ibid.

[4]Ibid.

[5]Ibid., 1087.

[6]Ibid.

[7]Ibid.

[8]Ibid.

[9]Ibid.

[10]Ibid., 1090.

[11]Ibid., 1091.

[12]Ibid.

[13]Ibid., 1087.

[14]Ibid.

[15]Ibid.

[16]Ibid., 1088.

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