Bertrand Russell on Thinking

Bertrand Russell 1957.jpg

Men fear thought as they fear nothing else on earth – more than ruin, more even than death. Thought is subversive and revolutionary, destructive and terrible; thought is merciless to privilege, established institutions, and comfortable habits; thought is anarchic and lawless, indifferent to authority, careless of the well-tried wisdom of the ages. Thought looks into the pit of hell and is not afraid. ~ Bertrand Russell (“Why Men Fight: A Method of Abolishing the International Duel,” pp. 178-179)

I have not dedicated a column to a discussion of a quote before, but I had forgotten about this old chestnut and thought it merited comment. Let me begin by saying that I doubt that people fear thought more than they fear torture, cancer, or the death of their children. But with those caveats out-of-the-way, let’s proceed.

Russell thought that most people don’t like to think, as another of his quotes reveals: “Most people would rather die than think; in fact, they do so.” When he says that people “fear thought,” he is giving a reason why many people don’t like to think. Of course, persons reject thinking because of laziness or inability or other reasons too, but fear is a major inhibitor of thought. But why?

People reject thinking not just because it is hard, but because they worry it will undermine their long-held, comfortable beliefs. Having taught university philosophy for more than 30 years I have seen this first hand. Students often dread thinking about controversial topics like politics, ethics, and religion.

But probe even deeper. If you start thinking, you may reject not only god and country but love, friendship, freedom, and more. You may discover that what is called love is reducible to chemical attraction; that friendship is mutual reciprocity; that morality is what those in power decree; that messengers of the gods are often psychologically deranged; that freedom is an illusion; and that life is absurd. Thought breeds the fear that we will lose our equilibrium, that we will be forced to see the world anew. We fear thinking because what we and others think matters to us.

I used to tell my students to not believe that ideas and thoughts don’t matter—that they only exist in the ivory tower with no significance for the real world—as if beer and football are more important. No. Thoughts and ideas incite political revolutions; they inspire people to sacrifice their lives or kill others for just and unjust causes alike. They determine how one treats both friends and enemies, and whether family is more important than money.

Even the most abstract thinking affects the world. Non-euclidean geometry or symbolic logic are about as abstract as thinking gets—yet you can’t understand Einsteinian gravity without the one, or run computers without the other. Thinking matters to us, to others, and to our world. That’s one reason why we fear it so much—it shakes our foundations.

But not just any thinking will do. If we truly love truth we will engage in careful and conscientious thinking informed by the best reason and evidence available—our dignity consists, in large part, on good thinking. Almost fifty years ago I entered a university where the following inscription was etched on its library’s wall. I have never forgotten it:

This institution will be based on the illimitable freedom of the human mind. For here we are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it.” ~ Thomas Jefferson



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