The 'Old Savage' and the Scientific Outlook: Religion, Science and Social Ethics in the Writings of Bertrand Russell, 1919-1938 [Book Review]

Dissertation, Mcmaster University (Canada) (1997)

While the intellectual concerns of Bertrand Russell and his Anglo-American contemporaries were indisputably shaped by the Great War, there was also a general feeling of apprehension that made "the Next War" a psychological reality long before the outbreak of war in 1939. This gave a special urgency and a pragmatic cast to numerous discussions about the emerging scientific society in what I have termed "the interwar period." ;The interwar period constitutes a more distinct period in the work of Bertrand Russell than has previously been acknowledged by scholars, particularly in terms of what he published on the topics of science, religion and social ethics between 1919 and 1938. Whatever his concern with philosophical questions, after 1918 Russell seemed compelled to address the practical question of "what ought we to do?" in a way that took him into the heart of the problem of trying to prevent the Next War. Throughout the interwar period Russell developed and expressed his ethical ideas as a "preacher," thus making both his delivery and the understanding of his intended audience into crucial components of what he wrote. ;Russell's conception of science constitutes a link in his published works between two significant themes found in Anglo-American literature of the interwar period: First, the Great War demonstrated that a new social ethic appropriate to the scientific society was necessary, if humanity was to survive its potential for self-destruction in the modern age. This was popularly referred to as the problem of "the old savage in the new civilization." Second, there was also considerable discussion on the relationship between science and religion during the interwar period as a result of "the philosophical implications of the new physics." On his part, Russell opposed the representation of science as technique alone, struggling instead to articulate a "moral outlook" in science, and objected to any reconciliation between science and religion. ;Because Russell understood the relationship between science and religion only in conflictual terms, however, his attempt to articulate a moral outlook in science was unsuccessful. By 1938 he had invalidated the association of science and metaphysics in a way that left him no other grounds than the utilitarian exercise of power on which to establish a modern social ethic. Individual moral progress might be accomplished, through education or whatever means, but there was no assurance it could ever be translated into the political or social structures of the new civilization
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