Good Book Review On Bertrand Russell’s Unpopular Essays

Type of paper: Book Review

Topic: Philosophy, Politics, Democracy, Middle East, Iraq, Freedom, War, Education

Pages: 4

Words: 1100

Published: 2021/02/05

In his renowned Unpopular Essays, Bertrand Russell champions liberal democratic societies and free enquiry while decrying dogmatism and totalitarian regimes that strip citizens of their civil and natural liberties. A collection of ten essays on a wide variety of subjects, Unpopular Essays, in Russell’s words, were presented in order “to combat in one way or another, the growth of dogmatism whether of the Right or the Left, which has hitherto characterized our tragic century” (Russell, 1950). Russell views philosophy as akin to chemistry or physics within the context of modernity. Central to his philosophy is the practice of critical thinking, which is firmly embedded in the fabric of science, philosophy, rationality, and liberalism. Critical thinking is clearly a nuanced conception that involves a litany of skills, perceptions, attitudes, and dispositions that converge and depict an ethos and metaphysic imbued with moral and intellectual dimensions. Russell’s governing epistemological belief is that knowledge itself is practically impossible to procure, which necessitates independence and freedom of inquiry, articulation, expression. The essays that comprise this anthology were penned with a specific purpose, even though some of them appear glib. Despite the name of this anthology, the essays retained a level of popular appeal, especially because Russell penned them in an intelligible, entertaining, and interesting manner using his characteristic satire and wit (Russell, 1950). Russell limns himself as a multi-faceted genius who articulates sentiments as a political theorist philosopher, a pedagogue, a social scientist, a propagandist, and an ethicist. As a whole, the author articulates arguments that deplore dogmatism and totalitarianism because of its oppressive nature and lack of freedom that characterized such political and philosophical systems.
In his first essay entitled “Philosophy and Politics “, Russell (1950) attacks Hegel’s philosophy and the political ramifications it encourages while defending John Locke’s empirical philosophy. Hegel’s philosophy, which Russell refers to as the Absolute idea, argues that such a political philosophy yields calamitous consequences within the political arena. Hegel’s metaphysical epistemology was rooted in the paradoxical notion that true freedom existed in obeying an arbitrary authority, thereby glorifying absolute monarchy, the predecessor to totalitarianism. Moreover, Hegel believed that free speech as a nefarious evil; bellicosity is both enticing and desirable and that global organizations created to negotiate peace settlements and disputes would be unfortunate. Russell laments how such a philosophy that spawned such calamitous consequences held any currency or sway within German, British, and American intelligentsia circles. Locke’s philosophy, however, according the Russell, retained merit because it provided a theoretical framework that justified democracy. Moreover, Locke embraced religious toleration, a checks and balances system that limited government power, and representative institutions. As such, Russell (1950) praises empiricism predicated on the ethical grounds and the ontological possibilities. Empiricist liberalism, Russell contends, represent the only philosophy that adequately served the purpose of humanity within the context of modernity. As such, Hegel’s rationalism unequivocally buttressed totalitarian ideology and dogmatism in a way that was antithetical to Locke’s philosophy.
Bertrand Russell envisions what would happen if another world war materialized, concluding that only the establishment of a world political system led by American leaders, which would usher in an era of world peace. The establishment of such a government could only take place because of the civilized life offered in America as opposed to life in Russia. Russell defines civilized life as freedom of inquiry, freedom of thought, freedom of discussion, and humane, moral feeling. If Russia ascended to world hegemony, such freedoms would be eradicated, resulting in an unequivocal narrowing of art, science, philosophy, and literature. Only in democracies where freedom of expression and opinion can circulate can powerful and oppressive governments be prevented from established a carceral, servile state. Indeed, the Russians are guilty of establishing such a servile state defined by a widening chasm between the rich and poor. Russell underscores the three dangers that must be averted: the establishment of a servile State on a macro scale; the extinction of the human race; and a reversion back to savagery and barbarism. The only way of safeguard humanity against these dangers is to establish a world government vis-à-vis peaceful means or through bellicose measures if necessary.
Charles Ferguson ‘s (2007) renowned documentary No End in Sight shifts the central focus of the grand narrative on the Iraq War toward historical analysis and an overt political contention. It renders Russell’s philosophy and epistemology tenable within the twenty-first century context. Top military and government officials expressed their disillusionment regarding the Iraq War and the way that the White House refused to heed their advice. As such, Ferguson elucidates how American foreign policy in Iraq was systematically flawed from its inception. The documentary depicts the authoritarian nature of the American government, which the Iraq War underscores. Top military and government officials who had initially supported the Iraq war believed that Vice President Dick Cheney, a known war hawk, was giving out the orders regarding American involvement in Iraq. President Bush, Ferguson gleans, signed various measures and orders related to the Iraq War without actually knowing what he was agreeing to because he functioned merely as a puppet leader governed by Dick Cheney (Ferguson, 2007). As such, these officials lamented that they more information they gathered about U.S. involvement in Iraq, the more disenchanted they grew. As such, Ferguson decries how the United States, which historically touted itself as a democratic political system that touted freedom and liberty, devolved and appeared more akin to the oppressive Soviet government during the twentieth century (Ferguson, 2007).
Russell’s epistemology reflects the philosophical realism predicated on Lockean empiricism, which valued experience the most in the process of knowledge acquisition. Russell unequivocally eschewed Hegelian philosophy because it provided a theoretical framework that justified totalitarianism and the denial of freedoms within the context of modernity. This compendium of essays penned by Russell propose provocative arguments regarding philosophy, metaphysics, and politics in order to understand modernity within a modern philosophical and political framework.


Chomsky, N. (1975). Toward a humanistic conception of education, in Feinberg, W. & Rosemont, Jr. H. (eds.), Work, Technology and Education. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 204-20.
Copleston, F.C. (1975). History of philosophy. Paulist Press.
Ferguson, C. (2007). No end in sight. Documentary.
Irvine, A.D. (2003). Bertrand Russell. Stanford University.
Russell,B. (1973). The Problems of Philosophy. London: Oxford University Press.
Russell, B. (1950). Unpopular essays. New York: Simon and Schuster.

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