The central thesis in Bertrand Russell’s The Value of Philosophy is that the purpose, or value, of philosophy is the pursuit of knowledge using criticism to uncover truths. However, philosophy refers to the method of pursuing knowledge, rather than knowledge itself; when a body of knowledge is identified, it then splits off from philosophy and becomes considered a science.
Russell gives the example of how astronomy was once considered to fall under the realm of philosophy when we did not know much about it; once we had advanced to the point where astronomical theories could be tested and quantified, it was no longer considered part of philosophy, and instead became its own science. Thus, the value of philosophy is the pursuit of knowledge which will eventually help shape our understanding of the universe, and by extension, how we should seek to exist in this universe.
The four major points Russell highlights to support this thesis are that: 1) the practical perspective is concerned with material results and solutions; this perspective is utilitarian and based on science, and therefore philosophy naturally contrasts with science; philosophy is therefore not a science; 2) philosophy is not demonstrably true, because if something is demonstrably true, it is no longer considered philosophy, and instead becomes a science; 3) philosophy is defined by its own uncertainty, which in turn compels us to enrich the way we think about knowledge and the universe outside of our material, preconceived notions or norms as created by our current age and society; and 4) in order to uncover knowledge, we must not have any preconceived notions about the forms of knowledge we seek. Russell refers to this as beginning with the non-self, or a purely open and objective view not based on accepted truths, in order to uncover knowledge. Philosophy is not about forcing knowledge to fitting into what we already believe is true, but rather on having a purely objective mindset, to the extent that we must begin our search for knowledge with assuming we know nothing.
The basic assumptions made by Russell in the article are that there is a natural contrast between practical and philosophical concerns; the beginning highlights how the practical person is concerned only with results, and not how the method used to obtain the results were designed. Russell paints the practical person as somewhat ignorant or concerned with trivial matters. For Russell, all that matters is seeking truth, and not being concerned with the practical application of these truths. Russell also assumes that religious thought, which presents its knowledge as factual according to religious dogma, is also anti-philosophical because true philosophy does not assume to know definitive answers or truths.
The important implications of Russell’s theory is that the pursuit of knowledge can enrich our understanding of ourselves and how we live, but also that philosophy implies there are certain unknowable truths, and we must accept there are things we can never truly know for certain. In regard to what this means, Russell would argue against the view that reality is created out of our perceptions, or that truths are man-made; rather, truth is objective and exists independently of humankind, and that taking the view that we create our own reality is essentially a selfish position. Russell’s views are not anti-science, but rather that philosophy and science simply are concerned with different things. According to Russell, science emerges from philosophy, and at this point it becomes truly independent from philosophy. However, philosophy can therefore help us uncover new branches of knowledge we have yet to discover, and this continual pursuit of knowledge is what will allow humanity to grow.