Has anyone read Bertrand Russell’s Knowledge and Wisdom?

Can someone tell me what it's about? What does it speak about? I have a copy but I don't understand it.


4 Answers

  • Here is a quick summary.

    Most people would agree that human beings are more knowledgeable now than we were in the past, mostly because of incredible progress in science and engineering. You can find more knowledge today on a single bookshelf of a university library than you could find in all of the libraries in the world a few thousand years ago. But most people would also agree that, despite this vast increase in knowledge, we are not necessarily more WISE than people were a couple of thousand years ago. The basic idea is that knowledge and wisdom are not the same thing. Most people would agree that Adolph Hitler was knowledgeable, but very few people would say that he was wise. So what, exactly, is the difference between knowledge and wisdom? This is the central idea that Russell wants to investigate. We are reasonably good at teaching knowledge (if we were not, we could never have created the vast technological, industrial society in which we live), but we don't know much about how to teach wisdom. If we were as good at teaching wisdom as we are at teaching knowledge, there would not be nearly as many "educated idiots" as we see in the world today. The main problem is that we really don't know exactly what wisdom is. Russell tries to figure out what wisdom is.

    Russell thinks there are several factors that contribute to wisdom. Here are a few:

    A sense of priority – knowing what is important and what we need to focus on. People who have no good sense of priority often get absorbed in projects that don't really matter, and forget about the things that really do matter in life.

    Comprehensiveness – being able to bring together a wide range of concepts and see how they all fit together (like the old saying goes, some people can't see the "forest" because they are so busy looking at the trees, or to put it another way, they are so lost in the details that they can't see the big picture).

    Depth of feeling. Russell says: "It is by no means uncommon to find men whose knowledge is wide but whose feelings are narrow. Such men lack what I call wisdom."

    And so on. Hopefully you are starting to get the basic ideas. He also tries to get at the core idea of what wisdom really is. He says "I think the essence of wisdom is emancipation, as fat as possible, from the tyranny of the here and now." This is interesting because very often we find spiritual traditions (Zen Buddhism, for example) in which the teacher tries to teach us to live fully in the moment. Russell is caught up in the mindset of a scientific/philosophical tradition that strives for impartiality or objectivity. I think there is some value in this, but personally I think this whole tradition puts too much emphasis here. To his credit, Russell does point out that this concern for objectivity does need to be tempered by an ability to stay connected with our feelings, and his main point in talking about this is not really in conflict with the spiritual/meditative traditions, as I hope to show in a minute. (As a quick aside, I will point out that an alternative to the empiricist/positivist emphasis on objectivity there are philosophical traditions like phenomenology, hermeneutics, existentialism, etc., in which special attention is paid to our being embedded in our cultural/historical context and realizing that our notion of "objectivity" is itself a product of this context, but that is a whole different ball of wax.)

    What Russell is mainly getting at when he talks about the " tyranny of the here and now" is a sort of personal evolution from our childhood, in which we are focused on our own immediate needs and desires, and learning to think beyond our immediate egos as we grow older. We learn from our past and plan for our future. We also learn to respect tradition and show compassion for future generations. This is common ground on which I think Russell and the mystics and the phenomenologists would all agree (although I think the mystics might emphasize our ability to find past and future in a fully-lived moment).

    Russell believes that wisdom can be taught. He says "We are told on Sundays that we should love our neighbors as ourselves. On the other six days of the week, we are exhorted to hate." One thing he has in mind here is the hatred of communism that was such a major factor in his day. The capitalist and communist governments tried to whip up fear and hatred as a way to keep people focused on the principle of the "cold war".

    Russell's views are summarized here: "It might be objected that it is right to hate those who do harm. I do not think so. If you hate them, it is only too likely that you will become equally harmful; and it is very unlikely that you will induce them to abandon their evil ways. Hatred of evil is itself a kind of bondage to evil. The way out is through understanding, not through hate. I am not advocating non-resistance. But I am saying that resistance, if it is to be effective in preventing the spread of evil, should be combined with the greatest degree of understanding and the smallest degree of force that is compatible with the survival of the good things that we wish to preserve."

    In other words, the path of wisdom is to act out of compassion and understanding, not out of fear and hatred. This does NOT mean that we simply let people do whatever they want, but it does mean that when we assert our own rights and resist what we feel is their bad behavior, we don't act out of our own egotistical sense of "I'm absolutely right and they are absolutely wrong" nor out of seething hatred, but rather, the wise path is to act out of a genuine spirit of compassion and a willingness to SERIOUSLY try to understand the other person's perspective.

  • 1. Knowledge is something we acquire, through effort. Wisdom, on the other hand, is a part of an inner mind that is INACCESSIBLE to us IF the highest state of consciousness we are in is the second state (ordinary "consciousness"). Wisdom only appears when we are in the third state. 2. No, teaching wisdom should NOT be the aim of education, at this time. Education should be used to acquire intellectual, motor or emotional skills that enable us to support ourselves and a family. A degree in Liberal Arts is absolute sophistry. You might think quoting Nietzsche makes you look really smart but if you're working at WalMart for seven dollars an hour because you wasted your time with a Liberal Arts degree, while someone else spent four years getting a degree as a Registered Nurse and they now make $60.00 an hour, I'd say THEY were the smart ones. You're just another loser who works at Walmart. 3. Wisdom is an end product. It is a joy in itself. This is evident if you read Solomons praise of wisdom. 4. Responsibility comes in AT BIRTH. The mere fact that you incarnated as a human being comes with a price that can NEVER be ignored. You asked for it, you strove for it and now, somehow, YOU GOT IT. This is your shot. The competition to incarnate as a human is INTENSE. And if you piss it away by committing suicide or committing acts of homosexual depravity, then you have thrown away the most precious gift any person could ever have...the possibility of living in a higher world.

  • I have read Bertrand Russell's book that you have mentioned.

    I have read it many years ago.

    Let us not forget that Bertrand Russell was a nobellaurreate.

    With due regards to Mr. Russell I will like to say the following :

    1. Russel analyzed concepts of the world, theory on knowledge, wisdom, self etc. very logically.

    2. In his pursuits to give and produce theories that support his concepts of the world etc. he just goes on and on. He becomes unnecessarily complex, just too complex in producing his theories and reasonings.

    3. In doing 2 above, he often goes down the wrong logical trails, comes back only to produce half-true and still more intangible theories. So, some of his theories are close to beign false, others near being "partially true". Only a very few coming close to being somewhat "true".

    I hope this will help you understand the book.

  • I think to understand the book of Mr. Russell knowledge and wisdom is mandatory

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