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A Largeness of Contemplation: Bertrand Russell on Intuition, the Intellect, and the Nature of Time

“Both in thought and in feeling, even though time be real, to realise the unimportance of time is the gate of wisdom.”

A Largeness of Contemplation: Bertrand Russell on Intuition, the Intellect, and the Nature of Time

Albert Einstein, in contemplating the human “passion for comprehension,” asserted that every true theoretical physicist is “is a kind of tamed metaphysicist” — a rather controversial statement amid a culture increasingly bent on disentangling science and philosophy (which used to be called metaphysics), and particularly controversial for modernity’s most significant scientist to make. But a mark of genius is precisely this unwillingness to succumb to culture’s artificial and limiting polarities — a continual commitment to seeking nuance over forced contrast.

Bertrand Russell (May 18, 1872–February 2, 1970) — another thinker of rare genius, a staunch champion of reason and one of the greatest philosophers who ever lived — made a magnificent case for that interplay between science and metaphysics a generation earlier in the title piece of his superb 1918 collection Mysticism and Logic and Other Essays (free ebook | public library).


Russell was a founding father of modern atheism, but he was also animated by a resolute commitment to nuance and an unflinching defiance of dogma, be it religious or scientific. He writes:

Metaphysics, or the attempt to conceive the world as a whole by means of thought, has been developed, from the first, by the union and conflict of two very different human impulses, the one urging men towards mysticism, the other urging them towards science. Some men have achieved greatness through one of these impulses alone, others through the other alone: in Hume, for example, the scientific impulse reigns quite unchecked, while in Blake a strong hostility to science co-exists with profound mystic insight. But the greatest men who have been philosophers have felt the need both of science and of mysticism: the attempt to harmonise the two was what made their life, and what always must, for all its arduous uncertainty, make philosophy, to some minds, a greater thing than either science or religion.

Where science is a function of reason, mysticism for Russell is a function of intuition and therefore a form of “poetic imagination, not science” — it is “little more than a certain intensity and depth of feeling in regard to what is believed about the universe.” And yet it offers a powerful complement to the scientific lens on reality. With an eye to the ethics of Heraclitus, he writes:

The facts of science, as they appeared to [Heraclitus], fed the flame in his soul, and in its light he saw into the depths of the world by the reflection of his own dancing swiftly penetrating fire. In such a nature we see the true union of the mystic and the man of science — the highest eminence, as I think, that it is possible to achieve in the world of thought.

This union of the intuitive and the empirical, Russell argues, is our most promising conduit to truth — the former contains our moral ideals, while the latter must test them against the reality which they are to inhabit. In a sentiment that calls to mind W.H. Auden’s assertion that “a poet must never make a statement simply because it sounds poetically exciting; he must also believe it to be true,” Russell writes:

Ethical considerations can only legitimately appear when the truth has been ascertained: they can and should appear as determining our feeling towards the truth, and our manner of ordering our lives in view of the truth, but not as themselves dictating what the truth is to be.


It is only in marriage with the world that our ideals can bear fruit: divorced from it, they remain barren. But marriage with the world is not to be achieved by an ideal which shrinks from fact, or demands in advance that the world shall conform to its desires.

A 16th-century painting by Portuguese artist, historian, and philosopher Francisco de Holanda, a student of Michelangelo’s, from Cosmigraphics: Picturing Space Through Time

Russell considers the nature of mystical experience:

Mystical philosophy, in all ages and in all parts of the world, is characterised by the belief in a way of wisdom, sudden, penetrating, coercive, which is contrasted with the slow and fallible study of outward appearance by a science relying wholly upon the senses.

In a passage that reminds me of physicist and novelist Alan Lightman’s beautiful account of a transcendent experience, Russell adds:

All who are capable of absorption in an inward passion must have experienced at times the strange feeling of unreality in common objects, the loss of contact with daily things, in which the solidity of the outer world is lost, and the soul seems, in utter loneliness, to bring forth, out of its own depths, the mad dance of fantastic phantoms which have hitherto appeared as independently real and living.


The first and most direct outcome of the moment of illumination is belief in the possibility of a way of knowledge which may be called revelation or insight or intuition, as contrasted with sense, reason, and analysis, which are regarded as blind guides leading to the morass of illusion. Closely connected with this belief is the conception of a Reality behind the world of appearance and utterly different from it. This Reality is regarded with an admiration often amounting to worship; it is felt to be always and everywhere close at hand, thinly veiled by the shows of sense, ready, for the receptive mind, to shine in its glory even through the apparent folly and wickedness of Man. The poet, the artist, and the lover are seekers after that glory: the haunting beauty that they pursue is the faint reflection of its sun. But the mystic lives in the full light of the vision: what others dimly seek he knows, with a knowledge beside which all other knowledge is ignorance.

Indeed, art is in a sense a mystical experience — something Saul Bellow captured beautifully in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, in which he observed: “Only art penetrates … the seeming realities of this world. There is another reality, the genuine one, which we lose sight of. This other reality is always sending us hints, which without art, we can’t receive.” But what Russell is concerned with is how mystical experience relates, and whether it should at all, to science.

In addition to this sense of revelation, he argues, three other criteria define mystical philosophy — a “belief in unity,” which negates all polarities and divisions; a “denial of the reality of Time,” which stems from the negation of divisions, for “if all is one, the distinction of past and future must be illusory”; and a belief that “all evil is mere appearance, an illusion produced by the divisions and oppositions of the analytic intellect.” He outlines this quartet of consideratoins:

Four questions thus arise in considering the truth or falsehood of mysticism, namely:

1. Are there two ways of knowing, which may be called respectively reason and intuition? And if so, is either to be preferred to the other?

2. Is all plurality and division illusory?

3. Is time unreal?

4. What kind of reality belongs to good and evil?

Returning to the crux of his inquiry — the possible complementarity of science and mystical philosophy — Russell argues that while mysticism may be misguided as a test of truth, there is something vital science can learn from its spirit of inquiry:

While fully developed mysticism seems to me mistaken, I yet believe that, by sufficient restraint, there is an element of wisdom to be learned from the mystical way of feeling, which does not seem to be attainable in any other manner. If this is the truth, mysticism is to be commended as an attitude towards life, not as a creed about the world… Even the cautious and patient investigation of truth by science, which seems the very antithesis of the mystic’s swift certainty, may be fostered and nourished by that very spirit of reverence in which mysticism lives and moves.

Echoing Galileo’s admonition against the folly of believing our preconceptions and Faraday’s strategy for countering our propensity for self-deception, Russell writes:

What I do wish to maintain — and it is here that the scientific attitude becomes imperative — is that insight, untested and unsupported, is an insufficient guarantee of truth, in spite of the fact that much of the most important truth is first suggested by its means… But in fact the opposition of instinct and reason is mainly illusory. Instinct, intuition, or insight is what first leads to the beliefs which subsequent reason confirms or confutes; but the confirmation, where it is possible, consists, in the last analysis, of agreement with other beliefs no less instinctive. Reason is a harmonising, controlling force rather than a creative one. Even in the most purely logical realm, it is insight that first arrives at what is new.

He is responding in large part to his contemporary and fellow Nobel laureate Henri Bergson’s polarization of instinct and the intellect. Russell argues that in the most lucid and fertile form of thought, the two are not in opposition but in harmony:

Instinct, like all human faculties, is liable to error. Those in whom reason is weak are often unwilling to admit this as regards themselves, though all admit it in regard to others. Where instinct is least liable to error is in practical matters as to which right judgment is a help to survival: friendship and hostility in others, for instance, are often felt with extraordinary discrimination through very careful disguises. But even in such matters a wrong impression may be given by reserve or flattery; and in matters less directly practical, such as philosophy deals with, very strong instinctive beliefs are sometimes wholly mistaken, as we may come to know through their perceived inconsistency with other equally strong beliefs. It is such considerations that necessitate the harmonising mediation of reason, which tests our beliefs by their mutual compatibility, and examines, in doubtful cases, the possible sources of error on the one side and on the other. In this there is no opposition to instinct as a whole, but only to blind reliance upon some one interesting aspect of instinct to the exclusion of other more commonplace but not less trustworthy aspects. It is such one-sidedness, not instinct itself, that reason aims at correcting.

The key to that harmony, Russell asserts, lies in bridging the expansive confidence of intuition with the balanced restraint of reason so as to produce — and isn’t that a most marvelous phrase? — a “largeness of contemplation.”

Its most compelling manifestation comes to life in Russell’s discussion of time and the question of whether or not it is real — perhaps the greatest friction point between science and metaphysics, and one that came to a head just four years later in Einstein and Bergson’s landmark debate, which shaped our modern understanding of time. With an eye to the mystics’ assertion that linear time is an illusion, Russell writes:

It is difficult to disentangle the truth and the error in this view. The arguments for the contention that time is unreal and that the world of sense is illusory must, I think, be regarded as fallacious. Nevertheless there is some sense — easier to feel than to state — in which time is an unimportant and superficial characteristic of reality. Past and future must be acknowledged to be as real as the present, and a certain emancipation from slavery to time is essential to philosophic thought.

Discus chronologicus, a German depiction of time from the early 1720s, from Cartographies of Time

A century before modern psychologists started probing the paradoxical psychology of time and today’s physicists began exploring why we experience it as linear and can’t remember the future, Russell speaks to these perplexities with astonishing intellectual precision:

The importance of time is rather practical than theoretical, rather in relation to our desires than in relation to truth. A truer image of the world, I think, is obtained by picturing things as entering into the stream of time from an eternal world outside, than from a view which regards time as the devouring tyrant of all that is. Both in thought and in feeling, even though time be real, to realise the unimportance of time is the gate of wisdom.

That this is the case may be seen at once by asking ourselves why our feelings towards the past are so different from our feelings towards the future. The reason for this difference is wholly practical: our wishes can affect the future but not the past, the future is to some extent subject to our power, while the past is unalterably fixed. But every future will some day be past: if we see the past truly now, it must, when it was still future, have been just what we now see it to be, and what is now future must be just what we shall see it to be when it has become past. The felt difference of quality between past and future, therefore, is not an intrinsic difference, but only a difference in relation to us: to impartial contemplation, it ceases to exist. And impartiality of contemplation is, in the intellectual sphere, that very same virtue of disinterestedness which, in the sphere of action, appears as justice and unselfishness. Whoever wishes to see the world truly, to rise in thought above the tyranny of practical desires, must learn to overcome the difference of attitude towards past and future, and to survey the whole stream of time in one comprehensive vision.


The beliefs of to-day may count as true to-day, if they carry us along the stream; but to-morrow they will be false, and must be replaced by new beliefs to meet the new situation. All our thinking consists of convenient fictions, imaginary congealings of the stream: reality flows on in spite of all our fictions, and though it can be lived, it cannot be conceived in thought.

Russell’s Mysticism and Logic and Other Essays is an enormously vitalizing read in its entirety. Complement this particular portion with Gaston Bachelard on our paradoxical experience of time, Hannah Arendt on time and our thinking ego, and Sarah Manguso on the wisdom of surrendering to time’s ongoingness, then revisit Russell on love and sex, what “the good life” really means, why “fruitful monotony” is essential for happiness, and the four desires driving all human behavior.

Published May 13, 2016




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