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    Themes from the thought of Bertrand Russell: the basis of ethics, truth, reality, the foundations of mathematics, the external world, logic, paradox, democracy, capitalism, socialism, communism, war and peace.

    This paper addresses a range of issues in ethics, philosophy and politics via a critical engagement with the thought of Bertrand Russell (1872-1970). Russell was perhaps the greatest philosopher and one of the greatest logicians of the 20th century, but also a political thinker, a public intellectual and an activist, who was twice imprisoned for his anti-war activities. He was one of the founding fathers of analytic philosophy, one of the co-inventors of symbolic logic and a noted philosopher of mathematics, specifically a proponent of logicism, the thesis that mathematics reduces to logic. He defended the correspondence theory of truth against pragmatists such as William James who thought that truth is what pays and Hegelians such as Harold Joachim who argued the truth consists in coherence. He was interested in our knowledge of the external world, at first reducing physical objects to logical fictions and then redefining them as inferred entities.

    Under the influence of G.E. Moore, he began as a believer in the objectivity of ethics but subsequently became a pioneer of both emotivism (moral judgments are neither true nor false) and the error theory (moral judgments are all false). He was philosopher of science, writing about the nature of science as intellectual enterprise and its impact on society and culture. In addition to all this he was an advocate of utilitarianism, a critic of Marxism, an analyst of power, a champion of democracy (especially votes for women), a proponent of socialism, a pacifist during World War I, and a campaigner against both nuclear weapons and the Vietnam War. His books on these and related topics (he wrote over seventy) remain in print, sometimes after more than a century.

    In this paper we grapple not only with abstract problems such as the nature of value, the nature of truth and the foundations of mathematics, but also with the issues of war and peace, democracy and capitalism, socialism and communism - on all of which Russell had something to say.

    About this paper

    Paper title Bertrand Russell: Ethics, Logic, Pacifism and Truth (Advanced)
    Subject Philosophy
    EFTS 0.15
    Points 18 points
    Teaching period Not offered in 2024 (On campus)
    Domestic Tuition Fees ( NZD ) $981.75
    International Tuition Fees Tuition Fees for international students are elsewhere on this website.
    One 200-level PHIL paper
    PHIL 221, PHIL 239, PHIL 321
    Schedule C
    Arts and Music
    Teaching staff

    Associate Professor Charles Pigden

    Paper Structure

    Week 1

    1. General Introduction and Historical Background . Russell's Life and Works
    2. Sidgwick , Russell and the "Dualism of Practical Reason". (Is it always rational to do the right thing?)

    Week 2
    Russell's Critique of Marxism

    Week 3

    1. The Nature of Truth:
      Analytic correspondence versus Hegelian coherence
    2. The Democratic Ideal and Votes for Women:
      Russell's arguments for and against democracy, Edwardian and otherwise

    Week 4
    Russell, Moore and Metaethics:
    Russell, G.E Moore and the "Naturalistic Fallacy". Russell versus Moore: two Kinds of Consequentialism.

    Week 5
    Logic, Existence and Definite Descriptions:
    Non-existent entities, especially the present King of France.

    Week 6
    Russell versus the Pragmatists:

    1. Is it OK to believe in God even if the evidence does not support this belief?
    2. Is Truth what it pays to believe?

    Week 7
    Logicism, Paradox and Type Theory:
    Can mathematics be reduced to logic?
    Russell's Paradox and what to do about it.

    Week 8

    1. Against World War I:
      Russell's Consequentialist Pacifism.
    2. Capitalism and Socialism:
      Russell's Critique of Capitalism and the Case for Guild Socialism.

    Week 9
    Logical Atomism:
    Are physical objects logical constructions out sense-data? Logical constructions versus inferred entities. Do negative truths require negative facts (such as absences or lacks)? Causality Dismissed.

    Week 10
    Non-cognitivism and the Error Theory:
    Russell's Arguments Against Objectivism. Emotivism versus the Error Theory. Non-cognitivism and moral commitment.

    Week 11

    1. Russell's (structural) Scientific Realism:
      Inferred Entities rather than Logical Constructions. Non-Deductive Inference. Empiricism Modified. Causality Reinstated. How to talk about the External World.
    2. Paradox and the Aftermath of Principia:
      Ramsey versus Russell. Logical and Semantic paradoxes. Tarski versus the Ramified Theory of Types. Theories of meaninglessness versus paraconsistent logic.

    Week 12

    1. Russell's Critique of Bolshevism:
      Critical analysis of Russell's "The Practice and Theory of Bolshevism".
    2. Problems of War and Peace:
      "I set out with a belief that love, free and courageous, could conquer the world without fighting. I came to support a bitter and terrible war". Russell's response to the Rise of Nazism

    Week 13

    1. Nuclear Weapons and World Government:
      Critical analysis of Russell's "Man's Peril" and "Common Sense and Nuclear Warfare".
    2. The Retreat From Pythagoras:
      "I sought to understand the Pythagorean power by which number held sway above the flux". But Russell subsequently came to doubt whether numbers had any such powers since numbers themselves were logical fictions and mathematical truths tautologies. Was Russell right to retreat from Pythagoras?
    Teaching Arrangements

    Two 2-hour lecture/seminars per week. Typically we kick off with a short presentation by one of the students; I give an impromptu lecture on the themes raised in the presentation, which broadens out via Q and A into a lecturer-led discussion of the issues.

    At least one essay must be on one of the more logical topics.

    • Class Presentation: 3% of final grade
    • First Essay (1,500-2,500 words): 30% of final grade
    • Second Essay (1,500-2,500 words): 30% of final grade
    • Third Essay (2,000-3,000 words): 37% of final grade
    • No Exam
    • Pigden, Charles: Coursebook 239/339: Bertrand Russell: Ethics, Logic, Pacifism and Truth (Required). Available in print and on Blackboard.
    • Ongley, John and Carey, Rosalind (2013) Russell: a Guide to the Perplexed, London and New York, Bloomsbury (Recommended).
    • Russell, Bertrand (1999) Russell on Ethics, ed. Charles Pigden London, Routledge (Recommended).
    • Numerous works of Russell's available either in the Library or online.
    Graduate Attributes Emphasised
    Global perspective, Interdisciplinary perspective, Lifelong learning, Scholarship, Communication, Critical thinking, Ethics, Environmental literacy, Information literacy, Research, Teamwork.
    View more information about Otago's graduate attributes.
    Learning Outcomes

    Students who successfully complete PHIL 339 will acquire:

    • A critical understanding of the work of Bertrand Russell, both as an abstract philosopher and as a social and political thinker
    • A critical understanding of Russell's views on topics of ongoing concern, such as: the basis of ethics, the nature of truth, the foundations of mathematics, our knowledge of the external world, logic, paradox, democracy, capitalism, socialism, war and peace
    • Enhanced logical, analytical, communicative and writing skills


    Not offered in 2024

    Teaching method
    This paper is taught On Campus
    Learning management system
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