Practical Man As This Word Is Often Used

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Whether as a Philosopher, Mathematician, or Logician Bertrand Russell was a revolutionary mind with insights that transformed all three fields. His book "A History of Western Philosophy", published in 1945, is among the most recommended and revered books about western philosophy in a vast collection of books about the subject.

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This famous quote was spoken by philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell in his essay “The Value of Philosophy.” The full quote, in context, appears below:

The ‘practical’ man, as this word is often used, is one who recognizes only material needs, who realizes that men must have food for the body, but is oblivious of the necessity of providing food for the mind. 

The ‘practical’ man, as this word is often used, is one who recognizes only material needs, who realizes that men must have food for the body, but is oblivious of the necessity of providing food for the mind.

Bertrand Russell

Did he say it?

Did he say it? Yes. This line appears in a chapter of his own book, The Problems of Philosophy, titled The Value of Philosophy. Often published on its own, the essay is a landmark text in introductory philosophy classes.  

The book initially came to print in 1912. 

What does Russell mean by “Practical Man As This Word Is Often Used”?

For Bertrand Russell, it was the “practical men” who question the value of philosophy. In this he didn’t mean it as a pejorative or as “the uneducated man”, in fact, he meant the man who goes to work every day, reads the news, keeps up on world affairs..etc. Russell sees the man who lives his life one moment to the next and takes on issues as they come as the practical man. This is the man who questions why we need philosophy which did not seem to be answering any of the same questions they had been asking for a long time without making much headway. When contrasted against fields like physics, biology, and chemistry that have given us medicine, food, and machines one is often led to questioning the value of Philosophy. Russell says that these men, the practical men, “have not only not understood the purpose of philosophy, but also the purpose of life itself” and that people need nourishment not just for the body but also for the soul.

I took Russell’s point to mean what’s the point of just practical matters if we’re never going to ask bigger questions about ourselves and our very existence. For Russell the proper subject matter of philosophy is these questions about our own existence that may not, much to the consternation of the practical man, have “final” answers. He believed that these types of questions may never have answers that we can all agree are correct in the way perhaps a mathematical equation can, but instead, these are questions that people must continue to ask of themselves and live in this uncertainty where the ultimate truth is not known. This uncertainty can be liberating as people can begin asking questions about the truths the society around them ingrained in them as true. As with Socrates, this uncertainty can lead to questions, which may lead to answers, but even if they do not the mere asking of the question divorces one from the wrong answers they always believed to be true.

Personally, as far as the practical man is concerned it is easy for me to see what Russell is arguing for and to agree with him wholeheartedly. As a fan and student of theoretical physics, I have more than once been asked to come up with answers to questions such as “why build the large hadron collider?” or “why fund a mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa?” when they will not lead to practical benefits for society. For me, this question is so foreign an idea, though not an impractical question. One must wonder what is the point of existence if we’re not going to ask questions about it and learn about it? What was all of this (existence) for if we’re not going to ask questions about it? Unlike the perennial questions of human existence that Russell discussed one must believe that the answer to this question, about whether we should even be asking these questions, is less uncertain.

What have others said about the quote?

While many commentators of different disciplines have commented on this quote from Bertrand Russell, we find one of the most compelling lines comes from Philosopher Clare Carlisle. In her essay for the guardian, Bertrand Russell: the everyday value of philosophy she gave the following quote (below).  

He saw philosophy as a way of life, insisting that questions of cosmic meaning and value have an existential, ethical, and spiritual urgency.

Clare Carlisle, Author               

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