The curmudgeonly essays Bertrand Russell wrote late in life generally get little attention from philosophers -- strikingly little, really, given that he was such a famous philosopher. For example, in the (admittedly limited) ISI Web of Knowledge citation database, I see only nine citations since 2000 of Russell's book Unpopular Essays, and none in mainstream philosophy journals.
I, however, am enjoying the essays, at least in my present also somewhat curmudgeonly mood -- though they do sometimes display the intellectual laziness common to grand old men who know they won't have to fight their way through unsympathetic referees to find print. (Hm, come to think of it, blogs are a little like that, too!)
One passage that particularly struck me, given my growing interest in the psychology of philosophy, was this:
Philosophy has been defined as "an unusually obstinate attempt to think clearly"; I should define it rather an "an unusually ingenious attempt to think fallaciously". The philosopher's temperament is rare, because it has to combine two somewhat conflicting characteristics: on the one hand a strong desire to believe some general proposition about the universe or human life; on the other hand, inability to believe contentedly except on what appear to be intellectual grounds. The more profound the philosopher, the more intricate and subtle must his fallacies be in order to produce in him the desired state of intellectual acquiescence. That is why philosophy is obscure.Russell illustrates this point very plausibly with the Descartes of the later Meditations, where Descartes attempts to reason his way out of his skeptical quandary by proving the existence of God. Russell also offers Berkeley, Kant, and Hegel as examples, though Russell's treatment of the latter two especially will strike any sympathetic historian of philosophy as irritatingly simplistic. Being myself generally an unsympathetic historian of philosophy, though, I wonder if Russell hasn't simply cut through the bullshit and seen the core. Here he is on Hegel:
Hegel's system satisfied the instincts of philosophers more fully than any of its predecessors. It was so obscure that no amateurs could hope to understand it. It was optimistic, since history is a progress in the unfolding of the Absolute Idea. It showed that the philosopher, sitting in his study considering abstract ideas, can know more about the real world than the statesman or the historian or the man of science.Given that our attraction to or revulsion from philosophical ideas tends to far precede our understanding of the subtle arguments pro and con (as I discussed a bit here), I suspect Russell is correct that such psychological considerations are a major factor driving both individual philosophers and the discipline as a whole, despite our flattering self-image.
This also makes me wonder whether Russell's late-in-life History of Western Philosophy has more to it than historians generally give it credit for.