Bertrand Russell on the Two Types of Knowledge and What Makes a Fulfilling Life
By Maria Popova
“The good life is one inspired by love and guided by knowledge. Neither love without knowledge, nor knowledge without love can produce a good life,” the Nobel-winning English polymath Bertrand Russell (May 18, 1872–February 2, 1970) wrote in his memoir at the end of a long and intellectually invigorating life — a life the echoes of which reverberate through some of the most defining ideas of our time.
But Russell first formulated this animating ethos in his 1931 treatise The Scientific Outlook (public library). On the surface, this remarkably perceptive and prescient book can appear to be a critique of science, which may seem surprising coming from Russell — in addition to being one of the twentieth century’s most lucid and influential philosophers, he was also a mathematician and logician himself, whose incisive writings on critical thinking and “the will to doubt” have rendered him an enduring patron saint of reason. But beneath such a surface impression is enormous depth of insight and a timeless, increasingly timely clarion call for nuance in distinguishing between the sort of knowledge driven by a greed for power and the higher-order wisdom that makes and keeps us human. In this light, although science is the book’s subject, its object is to examine the most elemental potentialities of the human spirit — our parallel capacities for good and evil — and to illuminate the means by which we can cultivate a nobler and more humane humanity.
Writing in a golden age of science, just as quantum mechanics and relativity were beginning to reconfigure our understanding of reality, yet well before the invention of the atomic bomb shed light on the dark side of science as a tool of power, Russell issues a poignant and prescient admonition about the uses and misuses of science. Reflecting on how these illuminate the largest questions of what it means to be human, he writes:
Science in the course of the few centuries of its history has undergone an internal development which appears to be not yet completed. One may sum up this development as the passage from contemplation to manipulation. The love of knowledge to which the growth of science is due is itself the product of a twofold impulse. We may seek knowledge of an object because we love the object or because we wish to have power over it. The former impulse leads to the kind of knowledge that is contemplative, the latter to the kind that is practical.
But the desire for knowledge has another form, belonging to an entirely different set of emotions. The mystic, the lover, and the poet are also seekers after knowledge… In all forms of love we wish to have knowledge of what is loved, not for purposes of power but for the ecstasy of contemplation… Wherever there is ecstasy or joy or delight derived from an object there is the desire to know that object — to know it not in the manipulative fashion that consists of turning it into something else, but to know it in the fashion of the beatific vision, because in itself and for itself it sheds happiness upon the lover. This may indeed be made the touchstone of any love that is valuable.
Nineteen years later, in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Russell would list this love of power among the four desires driving all human behavior. But despite its hijacking for practical purposes of manipulation, he argues, science in its truest form originates in this wellspring of love for its object. (Many decades later, pioneering astronomer Vera Rubin, who confirmed the existence of dark matter, would echo this notion in a somewhat surprising and rather lovely remark: “I sometimes ask myself whether I would be studying galaxies if they were ugly… I think it may not be irrelevant that galaxies are really very attractive.” And Frida Kahlo would shine a sidewise gleam on the same idea in her exquisite reflection on how love amplifies beauty.)
Nearly a century before astrophysicist Janna Levin depicted science as “a truly human endeavor,” Russell writes:
Science in its beginnings was due to men who were in love with the world. They perceived the beauty of the stars and the sea, of the winds and the mountains. Because they loved them their thoughts dwelt upon them, and they wished to understand them more intimately than a mere outward contemplation made possible. “The world,” said Heraclitus, “is an ever living fire, with measures kindling and measures going out.” Heraclitus and the other Ionian philosophers, from whom came the first impulse to scientific knowledge, felt the strange beauty of the world almost like a madness in the blood. They were men of Titanic passionate intellect, and from the intensity of their intellectual passion the whole movement of the modern world has sprung. But step by step, as science has developed, the impulse of love which gave it birth has been increasingly thwarted, while the impulse of power, which was at first a mere camp-follower, has gradually usurped command in virtue of its unforeseen success. The lover of nature has been baffled, the tyrant over nature has been rewarded.
Russell cautions that this shift from what he calls “love-knowledge” to “power-knowledge” is the single greatest hazard in the future of science, which is implicitly inseparable from the future of humanity. To protect science from such a shift, he suggests, is not only our duty but our only means of protecting us from ourselves. Half a century before Hannah Arendt’s insistence that asking unanswerable questions makes us human, Russell writes:
When science is considered contemplatively, not practically, we find that what we believe, we believe owing to animal faith, and it is only our disbeliefs that are due to science. When, on the other hand, science is considered as a technique for the transformation of ourselves and our environment, it is found to give us a power quite independent of its metaphysical validity. But we can only wield this power by ceasing to ask ourselves metaphysical questions about the nature of reality. Yet these questions are the evidence of a lover’s attitude toward the world. Thus it is only in so far as we renounce the world as its lovers that we can conquer it as its technicians. But this division in the soul is fatal to what is best in man. As soon as the failure of science considered as metaphysics is realized, the power conferred by science as a technique is only obtainable … by the renunciation of love.
Yet Russell is careful to call for the necessary nuance to prevent his central point from being misunderstood or even turned on itself:
It is not knowledge that is the source of these dangers. Knowledge is good and ignorance is evil: to this principle the lover of the world can admit no exception. Nor is it power in and for itself that is the source of danger. What is dangerous is power wielded for the sake of power, not power wielded for the sake of genuine good.
In another passage of astonishing political prescience, Russell writes on the cusp of the Nazis’ rise to power and speaks across the decades to our own time:
The leaders of the modern world are drunk with power: the fact that they can do something that no one previously thought it possible to do is to them a sufficient reason for doing it. Power is not one of the ends of life, but merely a means to other ends, and until men remember the ends that power should subserve, science will not do what it might to minister to the good life. But what then are the ends of life, the reader will say. I do not think that one man has a right to legislate for another on this matter. For each individual the ends of life are those things which he deeply desires, and which if they existed would give him peace. Or, if it be thought that peace is too much to ask this side of the grave, let us say that the ends of life should give delight or joy or ecstasy.
In a sentiment which Kurt Vonnegut would come to echo decades later in his verse about the secret of happiness, Russell adds:
In the conscious desires of the man who seeks power for its own sake there is something dusty: when he has it he wants only more power, and does not find rest in contemplation of what he has. The lover, the poet and the mystic find a fuller satisfaction than the seeker after power can ever know, since they can rest in the object of their love, whereas the seeker after power must be perpetually engaged in some fresh manipulation if he is not to suffer from a sense of emptiness. I think therefore that the satisfactions of the lover, using the word in its broadest sense, exceed the satisfactions of the tyrant, and deserve a higher place among the ends of life.
Looking back on his own life as a lover of the world, Russell reflects on what it would take to harness the power of science for the true ends of the good life:
When I come to die I shall not feel that I have lived in vain. I have seen the earth turn red at evening, the dew sparkling in the morning, and the snow shining under a frosty sun; I have smelt rain after drought, and have heard the stormy Atlantic beat upon the granite shores of Cornwall. Science may bestow these and other joys upon more people than could otherwise enjoy them. If so, its power will be wisely used. But when it takes out of life the moments to which life owes its value, science will not deserve admiration, however cleverly and however elaborately it may lead men among the road to despair. The sphere of values lies outside science, except in so far as science consists in the pursuit of knowledge. Science as the pursuit of power must not obtrude upon the sphere of values, and scientific technique, if it is to enrich human life, must not outweigh the ends which it should serve.
In a passage of especial poignancy in today’s context of a power-greedy government antagonistic to science and reliant on the propaganda of “alternative facts,” Russell adds:
The purpose of government is not merely to afford pleasure to those who govern, but to make life tolerable for those who are governed… It must become an essential part of man’s ethical outlook to realize that the will alone cannot make a good life. Knowing and feeling are equally essential ingredients both in the life of the individual and in that of the community. Knowledge, if it is wide and intimate, brings with it a realization of distant times and places, an awareness that the individual is not omnipotent or all-important…
Seven decades before philosopher Martha Nussbaum’s timeless treatise on the intelligence of the emotions, Russell concludes:
Even more important than knowledge is the life of the emotions. A world without delight and without affection is a world destitute of value. These things the scientific manipulator must remember, and if he does his manipulation may be wholly beneficial. All that is needed is that men should not be so intoxicated by new power as to forget the truths that were familiar to every previous generation. Not all wisdom is new, nor is all folly out of date.
Nearly a century later, The Scientific Outlook remains an immensely insightful read. Complement it with astrophysicist Janna Levin on what motivates scientists and philosopher of science Loren Eiseley on the relationship between nature and human nature, then revisit Russell on freedom of thought, what “the good life” really means, why “fruitful monotony” is essential for happiness, the nature of time, and his remarkable response to a fascist’s provocation.
Published May 8, 2017