Russell’s Epistemology in Problems of Philosophy – A Brief Introduction to Russell’s “Knowledges”

This may be the first substantive post I have ever made. At least I can be honest! The rest of the posts read like Nietzschean aphorisms (before or after his sanity left, I’m not sure).

But to Bertrand Russell. He had a wonderful way of explaining philosophical concepts, especially epistemology, to the average person. I’m currently using his Problems of Philosophy, as the basis of a paper and I have to say, it is quite easy to read as far as philosophical works go. But the problem is, Russell’s style and ease may interfere with his ability to do serious philosophy in that book. Hopefully, I can explain.

His epistemology basically is as follows:

He breaks knowledge down into “knowledge about things” and “knowledge about truths” first in chapters 4 and 5.  In chapter 5, he separates “knowledge about things” into “knowledge by acquaintance” and “knowledge by description.” He states that “we have acquaintance with anything of which we are directly aware, without the intermediary or any process of inference of any knowledge of truths” (Russell, 33). Knowledge by acquaintance is a conscious awareness that the Self is acquainted with a type of sense datum. This sense datum may come from the senses, memory, introspection, self-consciousness, and some universals (like redness or triangularity – these examples of universals have been done to death since Wilfrid Sellars first took the bat to them).

Knowledge by description refers to when “we know that there is one object, and no more, having a certain property” – although I think this definition is too ambiguous. (Russell, 38) An example would be your friend Ted telling you that he saw a red triangle this morning. You use your acquaintance with the idea of redness and a triangle and construct an understanding of what he said. You have a mental picture or at least a sense of understanding what he is saying. You may be slightly wrong – like if you imagine an upright red triangle but then come to see what he witnessed and realize it is upside down instead – but your idea is still composed of elements with which you are acquainted with.

Knowledge of truths likewise faces the same division. The first is intuitive knowledge which is based upon self-evident truths, which are based, in turn, off of acquaintances. Derivative knowledge is based upon intuitive knowledge “validly deduced”. (Russell, 95)

Ian Proops usefully summarizes this information as follows:

“Immediate knowledge of things is ‘acquaintance,’ while derivative knowledge of things is ‘knowledge by description.’ Immediate knowledge of truths, on the other hand, is ‘intuitive knowledge,’ while derivative knowledge of truths is knowledge of claims ‘ deduced from self-evident truths by the use of self-evident principles of deduction.'” (Proops, 795)

In the next post, I’ll look more into knowledge of truths, how they are known, and how they are based upon knowledge by acquaintance.

(1) Russell, Bertrand. Problems of Philosophy. Aberdeen: Watchmaker Publishing, 1927. Print.

(2) Proops, Ian. “Russellian Acquaintance Revisited.” Journal of the History of Philosophy 52:4 (2014): 779-811. ProQuest. Accessed 3 October 2017.

Image of Bertrand Russell courtesy of WikiCommons: By James Francis Horrabin (1884-1962) – (1 August 1917). “Bertrand Russell”. The Masses: 37. (, Public Domain,

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