Bertrand Russell, Elijah Mohammed, Apocryphal?
July 23, 2013 8:26 AM   Subscribe

"The central problem of our age is how to act decisively in the absence of certainty" - did Bertrand Russell actually say this?

A good google on my part gives plenty of attribution to Russell, but no convincing source as far as I can tell, plus a few attributions to Elijah Mohammed to make things slightly more opaque. So, librarians, idle-wonderers and fellow travellers, is there a reliable source for this little pearl of wisdom?
posted by robself to Education (6 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I haven't found that one in particular but did find:

"To teach how to live without certainty, and yet without being paralyzed by hesitation, is perhaps the chief thing that philosophy, in our age, can still do for those who study it." -
A History of Western Philosophy (in the Introduction)

You can read it online!
posted by dukes909 at 9:40 AM on July 23, 2013

An academic paper with this quotation attributes it to "An Inquiry in To Meaning and Truth". I got this through searching the quotation in Google scholar. A similar search with the first few words in quotes, Russell's last name, and the title of the lecture shows it cited as such in several other places.

This is available on in a number of formats. However, whenever I try to search for unique words within the quote ("central" and "our age") nothing comes up... weird.
posted by codacorolla at 11:26 AM on July 23, 2013

One possibility... As noted in the bibliographic material in the copy, there are several editions. It's possible that the quotation in question was an unique element of the 1950 edition (which is the cited date in the academic paper I linked), but, strangely, that isn't a date listed in the front material of the scan...
posted by codacorolla at 11:35 AM on July 23, 2013

1950 is also never a date given in any of the editions on Worldcat... this could be someone typing a citation date incorrectly and then subsequent work seeing that date and citing it off of that paper without reading the original text, it could be an error on Worldcat's part, or it could be that someone just made the quote up and it got misattributed by one author and was then copied by many others.
posted by codacorolla at 11:43 AM on July 23, 2013

Response by poster: Curious. I saw the 1950/Inquiry into Meaning & Truth reference in a couple of places myself but like the good codacorolla can't find my way back to that actual root. Seems like a hall of referencing mirrors. Hmmf!
posted by robself at 2:58 PM on July 23, 2013

Best answer: I haven't found any version of the quote in Google Books prior to 1994, so even though that's before the era of bogus quote attributions fostered by internet/social media, it's still pretty suspect.

Russell was concerned with "certainty" as a concept, but this particular formulation seems to come from elsewhere. Ayn Rand, for another, said something roughly similar. There are also some related constructions in this essay by Feynman.

Ah, but it is in the Harper Book of Quotations (1993). That feels a little more secure since there's at least some presumed research of print sources involved there.

I couldn't find it quoted in Google News Archives before the 21st Century, another not-hopeful sign. It didn't appear on USENET (at least the archived bits) until the late 1990s, either.
posted by dhartung at 4:23 AM on July 24, 2013

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