Supertext

November 24, 2006

The textbook that changed my life I was a natural scientist at school, doing maths, physics and chemistry. I had a vague sense that people in arts subjects were having a better time, chatting to girls in cafes about sex in Tolstoy, while I was chained to a bench investigating the properties of zinc. I also resented the amount I had to take on trust, without understanding the how or why of it - a plight that would undoubtedly be worse in these target-driven days.

So at my Cambridge admissions interview, with an intimidating tutor who looked like a retired colonel, I said I wished to read English, only to be crisply told: "Can't do that, sloppy subject, won't like it, better do moral sciences", which turned out to be Cambridge's term for philosophy. "We'll send you a reading list" was the response when I asked what it was. They did, and the list included Bertrand Russell's Problems of Philosophy , the introductory book he wrote in 1912, explicitly to make money. He called it his shilling shocker. It changed my life.

From it, I learnt that it was perfectly OK to question things. In natural sciences, the question "Why, Sir?" was too often met (and mine was an excellent school) with the answer "get on with it". In Russell, it turned out that everything was subject to question. I could, no doubt, have got the same lesson from Descartes or even Socrates, but for me Russell got there first. The book is about doubt and knowledge, science and truth, reason and experience, which were the very things that had bothered me as I laboured at physics and maths.

Russell's gallop through scepticism culminated, for me, in the famous chapter on induction: "The man who has fed the chicken every day throughout its life at last wrings its neck instead, showing that more refined views as to the uniformity of nature would have been useful to the chicken." The poor chicken became my personal version of the owl of Minerva. It opened up the world of probability and the foundations of empirical science, and eventually became the subject of my own doctorate.

Later on, I had to teach Russell's book as an introductory text at Oxford. I came to think that it had dated elements, and eventually I attempted an introduction of my own, a book gnomically called Think . But Russell was always my model. I could not imitate the brisk and somewhat aristocratic way he conversed with Leibniz, Berkeley, Kant, Hegel and others, but I tried to convey the same excitement and the same sense of liberation that his book gave me. I doubt if I succeeded, although the chicken remained firmly on the menu.

Simon Blackburn is professor of philosophy, Cambridge University.

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