The famous quote in question was indeed delivered by the renowned British Philosopher, Social Critic, and logician Bertrand Russell. We have one source so far that puts that quote in his famous, albeit dense, 1945 book A History of Western Philosophy. The book is a tour of some of Western Philosophy that begins with the Presocratics and ends, 827 pages, with the work of John Dewey, William James, and the development of the Philosophy of Logical Analysis.
The book begins with Bertrand Russell’s introductory line “many histories of philosophy exist, and it has not been my purpose to add one to their number.” Further remarking that it is his goal to “exhibit philosophy as an integral part of social and political life” and discover the character of communities in which systems flourish.
What Is Meant By Fools and Fanatics?
In 1945, when the book was published, the world was just reaching the end of a second world war which was even more disastrous than the first. Given the timeframe from which the quote is uttered, it’s not difficult to read the rise of dictators such as Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini into the quote.
However, the quote could also be applied to philosophers, scientists, and all members of society. In the years following the war, Tromif Lysenko would dismiss Mendelian genetics and promised the Russian people enormous crop yields that would render Russian food scarcity a thing of the past.
The quote bears a tremendous amount of resemblance in content and meaning to Socrates’ famous quote: If I am the wisest man alive, it is for I know one thing and that is that I know nothing. A fundamental question of philosophy asks “what do you mean when you say you know?” Russell echoed this sentiment perfectly by suggesting that society is susceptible to leaders who never seem to question their knowledge but yet demand others adhere to it beliefs. A more common version of the quote uttered so frequently it’s a cliche is that the “loudest voices heard.”
Relationship to Dunner-Kruger Effect
Though the actual effect is more complicated than it is often used, Russell’s quote finds solid grounding in contemporary psychology in an effect known as the dunner-kruger effect. The effect, named for psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger, attempts to illustrate how people with a limited amount of information about a particular subject perceive themselves to be an expert in the field.
The image to the left (or below) shows how confidence in one’s perceived understanding of particular subject skyrockets with just a little exposure to the information about said subject. That confidence level plummets as one begins to learn more about the subject and as they become more and more aware that there is more to the topic than they knew (or really could have known) otherwise. Keep in mind however that the effect is a general finding and its predictive validity is not the same for every person on every subject. However, it does nicely elucidate the points by Socrates, Russell, and all others who have followed the western philosophical tradition along the way.
Russell’s Advice For The Next Generation
Bertrand Russell was once asked to give advice to the next generation and the philosopher offered two pieces of advice, one an intellectual and the other moral. A video clip of his response can be viewed here but, given how closely the quote mirrors the featured quote on this page, we thought it foolish not to mention it here.
Bertrand Russell’s Intellectual Suggestion
Intellectually Russell prescribes that when one is studying or considering any matter try to, above all, only ask oneself “what are the facts of the matter?” As difficult as it may be, one should “never let yourself be diverted by what you wish to believe” or “by what you think would have beneficial social effects if a fact is believed.”
This sentiment applies not only to scientists and philosophers but can be readily deployed in day-to-day life. While one may wish to look down on another who may be more successful or like to be society, one does themselves no favors by imagining or inventing the problems of the other.
Russell’s Moral Suggestion
Elegant but also wise, Bertrand Russell’s moral advice for future generations is simply that it is that “love is wise” and “hatred is foolish.” Russell notes that and this was in 1959 mind you, the world is becoming “increasingly interconnected” and we’re going to have to learn to live together in a world where we’re constantly interacting with one another.