In the preface to his book Principles of Social Reconstruction, Bertrand Russell (1872–1970), while deliberating on the nature of education, marks education as one of the threeFootnote 1 creative impulses (1916, p. 5). He divides impulses into two types, viz. creative and possessive, and says: “Possession means taking or keeping some good thing which another is prevented from enjoying; creation means putting into the world a good thing which otherwise no one would be able to enjoy” (1916, p. 235). This suggests that creative impulses, in contrast to the possessive one, are “essentially harmonious” (Russell, 1916, p. 237). Again, from the claim Russell makes that the supreme principle, both in politics and in private life, is to “promote all that is creative, and so to diminish the impulses and desires that centre round possession” (Russell, 1916, p. 236) it follows that there is the necessity of promoting all that is creative as against that which is possessive in life. Education, being a creative impulse, must aim at vouching all that is creative. To carry out this task, according to Russell, education has to proceed in accordance with a principle, i.e. the principle of growth. Growth is an instinctive principle, which may vary from person to person, but due to its harmonious nature it is always creative, and not possessive. Nevertheless, Russell critiques education for getting “vitiated by the intrusion of possessive motives” (1916, p. 236). The chief objection he levelled against education is this: “Education is usually treated as a means of prolonging the status quo by instilling prejudices, rather than of creating free thought and a noble outlook by the example of generous feeling and the stimulus of mental adventure” (Russell, 1916, p. 236). These words distinctively highlight Russell’s advocacy of freeFootnote 2 thought. What Russell believes is that education, being a creative impulse, must inculcate free thought for enabling children grow generous feelings, and make them capable of becoming mentally adventurous. Russell argues that a person who is free “must be free of two things: the force of tradition, and the tyranny of his own passions” (1944, p. 3). A free thinker, “will not bow to the authority of others, and he will not bow to his own desires, but he will submit to evidence. Prove to him that he is mistaken, and he will change his opinion; supply him with a new fact, and he will necessarily abandon even his most cherished theories” (Russell, 1944, p. 3). A free thinker does so because “his desire is to know, not to indulge in pretty fancies” (Russell, 1944, p. 3). As the desire to know is the mark of a free thinker, and education aims at yielding such desire, education has to take recourse to rationality—knowledge and rationality are intertwined. An educated man is a free thinker who can think rationally or one who can inculcate genuine thoughts. Russell says that the genuine thoughts arise out of intellectual curiosity which is impulsive in nature. Although these thoughts arise out of creative impulse, a genuine thinker needs to be spirited by rational bent of mind. It is education by means of which children grow their rationality. Since rationality, for Russell, is critically spirited, it is only by nurturing rationality/critical outlook children learn how to grow or what they learn what it means to be educated. To be educated means to be critically creative—an educated human being is one who grows creatively in accordance with the principle of growth, and is one who grows critically. The present paper argues that Russell’s claim that education is a creative impulse in fact is a claim about the critico-creative nature of education, because education needs to endorse both—the principle of growth and rationality—and to consider both means to give a balanced attention to both—creative nature of impulse and the critical nature of rationality. That is, to consider education as a creative impulse is to consider it to be a critico-creative impulse. On this count, no thought can be considered creative unless it is purified with a critical/rational outlook. By arguing so, the present paper commemorates Russell on his 150th birth anniversary and re-emphasizes his much underrated relevance even to the contemporary field of education.

In the section “Genuine Thoughts and Creative Impulses”, a discussion is being made to see how genuine thoughts arise out of the intellectual impulse of curiosity. Here, a special focus is being given to understand why genuine thoughts cannot be said to oppose impulses. Moreover, a connection between education and creation of genuine thoughts is sought to get established in this section. In the section, “Growth in Education”, the necessity of the principle of growth in education is being emphasized. In the section entitled “Two Sets of Rationality: Rationality of Opinion and Rationality in Practice”, a detailed discussion is being made on Russell’s concept of rationality. The last section is the concluding one.

Genuine Thoughts and Creative Impulses

Russell says: “The only thought which is genuine is that which springs out of the intellectual impulse of curiosity, leading to the desire to know and understand” (1916, p. 15). The claim that genuine thoughts arise out of the intellectual impulse of curiosity suggests that impulses are not opposed to thought, because while impulse may mean whim or fancy, genuine thought must not be whim or fancy. Moreover, though the word thought is generally used to refer to that which is rational in nature, it does not necessarily mean that all thoughts are rational or that thoughts cannot be irrational. Thoughts might be irrational, but thought, if it is genuine, cannot be irrational. It is about these genuine thoughts Russell talks of. Now, we may turn our discussion to see how education, which is proclaimed to be a creative impulse by Russell, is related to the genuine thoughts.

Russell argues that the best life is “that which is most built on creative impulses, and the worst that which is most inspired by love of possession” (1916, p. 5). The intellectual impulse of curiosity out of which genuine thoughts are born is a creative impulse and not possessive. However, for Russell, impulses as such are blind, and that “Blind impulses sometimes lead to destruction and death, but at other times they lead to the best things the world contains. …It is not the weakening of impulse that is to be desired, but the direction of impulse towards life and growth rather than towards death and decay” (1916, pp. 17–18). What is significant to note here is Russell’s emphasis on the need for the direction of impulses. This also means that even though all impulses are blind (since they are neither creative nor possessive when they are born), they need to be directed. The direction, Russell says, proceeds from a central principle—he terms this principle the principle of growth. The principle of growth is “an instinctive urgency leading them [impulses and desiresFootnote 3] in a certain direction, as trees seek the light” (Russell, 1916, p. 24). [A detailed account of the principle of growth is being discussed in the next section of the present paper.] This means that impulses must be provided with outlets—it is on the nature of the outlets will depend whether thoughts will grow genuinely or not. Russell puts his excellent observation on thought and also reflects on to see why men fear thought through these words: “Men fear thought as they fear nothing else on earth—more than ruin, more even than death” (1916, p. 165). He also cites men’s fear for thought in the following way:

Thought is subversive and revolutionary, destructive and terrible; thought is merciless to privilege, established institutions, and comfortable habits; thought is anarchic and lawless, indifferent to authority, careless of the well-tried wisdom of the ages. Thought looks into the pit of hell and is not afraid. ...Thought is great and swift and free, the light of the world, and the chief glory of men (Russell, 1916, p. 165).

It is important to note here that the word thought mentioned in the quote above is used to refer to the genuine thoughts alone.

In the context of education, Russell reaffirms the glory of thought with the help of few extraordinarily beautiful words:

The powers of thought, the vast regions which it can master, the much more vast regions which it can only dimly suggest to imagination, give to those whose minds have travelled beyond the daily round an amazing richness of material, an escape from the triviality and wearisomeness of familiar routine, by which the whole of life is filled with interest, and the prison walls of the commonplace are broken down. The same love of adventure which takes men to the South Pole, the same passion for a conclusive trial of strength which leads some men to welcome war, can find in creative thought an outlet which is neither wasteful nor cruel, but increases the dignity of man by incarnating in life some of that shining splendour which the human spirit is bringing down out of the unknown. To give this joy, in a greater or less measure, to all who are capable of it, is the supreme end for which the education of the mind is to be valued (1916, p. 164).

The adventurous nature of thought, as Russell depicts it, reveals that education, being a creative impulse, must opportune children to create genuine thoughts. To enable a person discover the joy of miraculous nature of thought (genuine thoughts), for Russell, therefore, is the supreme end of education of mind.

For Russell, impulses are the first movers. Here he observes:

Our whole life is built about a certain number—not a very small number—of primary instincts and impulses. Only what is in some way connected with these instincts and impulses appears to us desirable or important; there is no faculty, whether “reason” or “virtue” or whatever it may be called, that can take our active life and our hopes and fears outside the region controlled by these first movers of all desires (Russell, 2004b, p. 29).

By calling impulses as the first movers, and by holding the view that reason or virtue cannot be substituted for these movers, Russell, however, does not mean that rationality cannot play any role in our lives. Rather, Russell’s emphasis on rationality in our lives and education is evidently clear throughout his writings. His statement that the purpose of education is the enlargement of primary impulses and not the eradication of these impulses carries the significance of impulses in our lives. To say that the task of education is to enlarge primary impulses is to say that education must be creative and not possessive. But, education, without taking account of the instinctive principle, i.e. the principle of growth (as the principle is the directional one), cannot pursue this task. It is in directing these impulses rationality has to play a big role, because principle of growth would be unable to direct any impulse unless impulse is rationally moved or genuine thoughts are created. (For better appreciation of genuine thoughts of Russell, his understanding on rationality needs to be incorporated, because Russell’s deliberation on rationality helps one dive deeper into the meaning and significance of genuine thought.)

Before dwelling on what Russell means by rationality, the need for growth in education is preluded in the next section to understand the directional role of the principle of growth.

Growth in Education

Russell compares the growth of men with the growth of trees in the following way:

Men like trees, require for their growth the right soil and a sufficient freedom from oppression. These can be helped or hindered by political institutions. But the soil and the freedom required for a man’s growth are immeasurably more difficult to discover and to obtain than the soil and the freedom required for the growth of a tree (1916, p. 25).

Though difficult, Russell is all set to inquire into the task of discovering the soil and freedom for the growth of men, and claims that the full growth of men can neither be defined nor can it be demonstrated. Unlike the growth of trees which depends chiefly on the physical environment, the growth of men does not merely depend on physical environment. Men’s growth depends on “beliefs and affections, upon opportunities for action, and upon the whole life of community” (Russell, 1916, p. 25). He adds further:

A man’s needs and desires are not confined to his own life. If his mind is comprehensive and his imagination vivid, the failures of the community to which he belongs are his failures, and its successes are his successes: according as his community succeeds or fails, his own growth is nourished or impeded (Russell, 1916, p. 26).

That is, a man must grow by being a part of the society yet s/he must not lose individuality. In other words, an individual must grow in the way s/he chooses to grow. The choice to grow cannot be a random choice. It is a choice which needs to be guided by rationality.

The principle of growth, which is the source of impulse for Russell “differs from man to man, and determines for each man the type of excellence of which he is capable. The utmost that social institutions can do for a man is to make his own growth free and vigorous: they cannot force him to grow according to the pattern of another man” (1916, p. 24). This means that an individual cannot be forced to grow just in the pattern another individual grows (Russell, 1916, p. 24). The central Russellian conviction here is that a man’s natural growth is not to be impeded, because

When a man’s growth is unimpeded, his self-respect remains intact, and he is not inclined to regard others as his enemies. But when, for whatever reason/s, his growth is impeded, or he is compelled to grow into some twisted and unnatural shape, his instinct presents the environment as his enemy, and he becomes filled with hatred (1916, p. 39).

Again, Russell urges upon the necessity for putting a check upon the impulses which may grow out of the principle of growth yet may be injurious to the growth of others. However, he claims that there are some impulses and desires which do not grow out of the central principle of growth, e.g. impulse towards drug is harmful and it needs to be checked by self-discipline. It seems somewhat incomprehensible as to why Russell says that some impulses do not grow out of the principle of growth despite he talks about the directionality of impulses.

As against a common belief that “what is instinctive cannot be changed, but must be simply accepted and made the best of” (Russell, 1916, p. 39), Russell argues that “the instinctive part of our character is very malleable” (ibid., p. 39). He says: “Almost any instinct is capable of many different forms according to the nature of the outlets which it finds” (Russell, 1916, p. 40). Malleability of one’s character depends on the outward circumstances a man is surrounded by, because man gets associated with different circumstances, and these circumstances do play enormous role in his/her life. Hence, Russell argues that the individual’s nature gets “greatly affected by circumstances” (1916, p. 41). This means that an individual’s growth depends both on impulses (which is instinctive and hence internal) and on the circumstances where s/he grows up (which is external). Russell believes that in educating children, education must take care of both factors—internal and external. For the growth of impulses (internal) of children, they are to be provided with freedom in the institutions. It is in the context of growth, Howard Woodhouse refers to the need for Russellian freedom and reverence, and writes:

It [reverence] implies an active caring and concern for the well-being and freedom of the young on the part of the educator. Moreover, it entails the provision of an environment suitable for the active channelizing of his impulses in constructive activities by the child. Not only is the child to be free from the interference of others, but he has to be free to pursue those interests to which he is led by the natural development of both his growth and impulses (1983).

That is, education demands attention from both the angles—external, which comes from factors relating to the circumstances, and for which giving creative outlets to them becomes necessary; and the other, internal, which requires that the impulses (creative) of the children need to be revered by the educators. It is for dispatching the role with reverence, each educator must have clear-cut idea about genuine thought or rationality. Below is the section which will focus on Russell’s understanding of rationality.

Two Sets of Rationality: Rationality of Opinion and Rationality in Practice

In his essay entitled Can Men be Rational?, by expressing deep concern for the need for revival of rationality Russell says: “Complete rationality is no doubt an unattainable ideal, but so long as we continue to classify some men as lunatics it is clear that we think some men more rational than others” (1928, p. 36). By claiming complete rationality to be an unattainable ideal, however, Russell does not mean that people must not strive for attaining rationality. Rather, his advocacy relating to the varying degree of rationality in men suffices to see that rationality is not to be understood as something which can be acquired by men once and for all. The attempt to develop rationality is an essential condition for keeping rationality alive in men.

Russell commented once: “solid progress in the world consists of an increase in rationality, both practical and theoretical” (1928, p. 36). He, therefore, pays sufficient attention to the question of the definition of rationality. He says that the “definition of rationality has both sides, theoretical as well as practical: what is a rational opinion? and what is rational conduct?” (1928, p. 36). He defines rationality in opinion “as the habit of taking account of all relevant evidence in arriving at a belief” (ibid., p. 36). Where certainty is unattainable, a rational man “will give most weight to the most probable opinion, while retaining others, which have an appreciable probability, in his mind as hypotheses which subsequent evidence may show to be preferable” (1928, p. 36). It follows therefore that for Russell (a) a rational man knows that certainty may not be attainable in all cases, (b) in cases where certainty is almost obvious to attain, a rational man gives weight to the most probable opinion, (c) a rational man, while giving weight to the most probable opinion, retains with him/her other opinions which he/she considers to have an appreciable probability, and (d) a rational man keeps opinions having appreciable probability in the form of hypotheses in his/her mind as these hypotheses may further come out to be more preferable than the opinion which was earlier considered to be the most probable one. All (a), (b), (c), and (d) indicate that wherever certainty seems to be unattainable, a rational man possesses a mind that welcomes probable opinion. It is interesting to note here that a rational man’s attitude of endorsing probability rather than certainty (where attainment of certainty is impossible) is closely bound up with Russell’s concept of fact (as he defines irrationalism as the disbelief in objective fact). In his philosophy of logical analysis, fact occupies a central place, more particularly his concept of analysis centres round fact. As regards to fact Russell says: “When I speak of a fact –I do not propose to attempt an exact definition, but an explanation, so that you will know what I am talking about—I mean the kind of thing that makes a proposition true or false” (2004a, p. 182). To know the truth or falsity of a proposition, one has to depend on a fact because “When we speak falsely it is an objective fact that makes what we say false, and it is an objective fact which makes what we say true when we speak truly” (2004a, p. 183). Let us take an example to illustrate this point: “COVID-19 broke out in 2020” is a fact. If a proposition, e.g. “COVID-19 broke out in 2020”, is uttered, then the determination of the truth or falsity of the proposition will depend on the fact, viz. “COVID-19 broke out in 2020”, because the proposition “COVID-19 broke out in 2020” has been made true by the corresponding fact that COVID-19 in fact broke out in the year 2020. Although fact remains focal in Russell’s philosophy of logical atomism (philosophy of logical atomism is technical in that it endorses a symbolic method of analysis), his emphasis on rationality for everyday life is indicative of the point that fact remains fundamental for him in the non-technical domain too. From his statement that “…if fact can be made the test of the truth of our beliefs anywhere, it should be the test everywhere, leading to agnosticism whenever it cannot be applied” (Russell, 1928, p. 38), it follows that Russell’s reference to fact as the test of truth of our beliefs anywhere, i.e. rationality in opinion rests on the adherence to fact.

For Russell, fact is related to objectivity of truth, and the objectivity of truth is something which is desired by everyone. Even in the field of religion too, he says, one seeks to obtain objective truth “as long as they hope to find it” (Russell, 1928, p. 38), but “it is only when people have given up the hope of proving that religion is true in a straightforward sense that they set to work to prove that it is ‘true’ in some new-fangled sense” (Russell, 1928, p. 38). The use of the word newfangled is significant here, because for Russell, it is when men become aware of the non-provability of the truth of religion in an objective sense, they attempt to prove truth in a newfangled way. This implies that the desire to prove truth in a newfangled way in any discourse is a way to import truth rather than attempting to look at truth in a straight forward way. Attempt to import truth in a newfangled way, according to Russell, is as an instance of irrationalism as irrationalism “arises almost always from the desire to assert something for which there is no evidence, or to deny something for which there is very good evidence” (1928, p. 38). By following Russell’s take on irrationalism here, rationalism can be understood as belief in objective fact which arises almost always from the desire to deny something for which there is no evidence, or to assert something for which there is very good evidence. It follows therefore that what is primary in both rationality and irrationality is the desire to believe/disbelieve on good evidence/bad evidence. By analysing the theoretical side of rationality, Russell comes to the point that it is man’s desire to arrive at certainty in every case that an irrational man desires to disbelieve in objective fact. Theoretical part of rationality, for Russell, consists “in basing our beliefs as regards matters of fact upon evidence rather than upon wishes, prejudices, or traditions” (1928, p. 38). Thus, a rational man is “the same as one who is judicial or one who is scientific” (1928, p. 38). To be judicious or to be scientific, then, means to consider an objective truth to be a “very mundane and pedestrian affair—that is sought in science” (1928, p. 38).

Practical side of rationality in opinion, Russell says, is more difficult. He states two sources from which the differences of opinion on practical questions arise: “first, differences between the desires of the disputants; secondly, differences in their estimates of the means for realizing their desires” (Russell, 1928, p. 39). Difference of the second kind, Russell considers “really theoretical and only derivatively practical” (1928, p. 39). He cites an example to illustrate this point. If some dispute arises regarding the adoption of first line of defence, some authorities may hold that such defence should consist of battleship, while some others may opine that it should consist of aeroplanes. It can be observed here that the dispute is not with regard to the proposed end, because disputants on both sides are in agreement with the end, i.e. national defence. Here, difference arises only with regard to the means. The dispute here can be settled “in a purely scientific manner, since the disagreement which causes the dispute is only as to facts, present or future, certain or probable” (Russell, 1928, p. 40). However, Russell considers few cases where complication may crop up in rationality in practice. An example he picks up is from gambling: despite knowing that the system of gambling itself is irrational, gamblers believe (irrationally) in the system of gambling that it “must lead them to win in the long run” (Russell, 1928, p. 40). A gambler who desires to play gamble persuades to her/his own self to play it on the ground that “by so acting he will achieve some end which he considers good…” (Russell, 1928, p. 40). Similar example is in case of a man who likes tobacco and who may say that it soothes the nerves; again a man who likes alcohol may say that it stimulates wit. All these cases reveal that the desire to play gamble, to like tobacco, to like alcohol—all are biased in that despite knowing that these are not good activities, they desire to act it. In all the cases, people are biased about their desires and they justify their desires by dragging into some ends. What Russell wishes to mean here is that “the bias produced by such causes falsifies men’s judgments as to facts in a way which is very hard to avoid” (1928, p. 40). This happens because a biased person judges “quite differently as to matters of fact and as to probabilities from the way in which a man with contrary desires will judge” (Russell, 1928, p. 40). Hence, it leads men to believe practically that in such matters “it is impossible to be objective” (Russell, 1928, p. 40). In such cases, Russell sees psychoanalysis to be particularly useful, “since it enables man to become aware of a bias which has hitherto been unconscious” (1928, p. 40). Though Russell hints at the usefulness of psychoanalysis in the aforementioned cases, he does not spell it out fully.

Rationality in practice, like rationality of opinion, is a matter of degree for Russell. He defines rationality in practice as the “the habit of remembering all our relevant desires, and not only the one which happens at the moment to be strongest” (Russell, 1928, p. 41). In contrast to a rational man (rationality in practice), an irrational man “…forgets that, by indulging the desire which he happens to feel most strongly at the moment, he will thwart other desires which in the long run are more important to him” (Russell, 1928, p. 41). In contrast to an irrational man, a rational man takes “more correct view of their own interest” (Russell, 1928, p. 41). Considering these points as to how a rational man rationalizes in practice, Russell says further: “…if all men acted from enlightened self-interest the world would be a paradise in comparison with what it is” (1928, p. 41). Enlightened self-interest is the catchword here because it is by way of enlightening one’s interest or by broadening one’s interest men can be said to have rationalized practically. This, however, does not mean that enlightened self-interest is the highest morality for Russell. He endorses it because “the less rational a man is, the oftener he will fail to perceive how what injures others also injures him, because hatred or envy will blind him” (Russell, 1928, p. 41).

A man is rational “in proportion as his intelligence informs and controls his desires” (Russell, 1928, p. 41). Russell’s deliberation on rationality conceived both theoretically and practically steers clear of one fundamental point about rationality, i.e. one must be intelligence in order to become rational. By intelligence, he does not mean holding higher degrees or achieving certificates in examinations. Being intelligent here means to rationalize both theoretically and practically. That is why Russell opines that it is the control of our acts by intelligence alone which makes social life possible (1928, p. 42). What is needed here is the individuals’ “effort towards a more sane and balanced view of our relations to our neighbours and to the world” (Russell, 1928, p. 42). It is to such increasingly widespread intelligence; Russell says that “we must look for the solution of the ills from which our world is suffering” (Russell, 1928, p. 42). Rationality, by virtue of being such an increasingly widespread intelligence, points towards a big world—a world where no room is left either for importing newfangled truth or for thinking only for one’s own self. It follows therefore that Russell, by providing a detailed account of both theoretical and practical aspects of rationality, in fact prepares a stage for becoming genuine thinkers.


Russell’s utterance that “in these days rationality has received many hard knocks, so that it is difficult to know what one means by it, or whether, if that were known, if something which human beings can achieve” (1928, p. 36) can be understood as a serious question about rationality being posed to the whole human race. Russell witnessed two world wars and experienced the devastating aftermath. This leads him foresee the possible threats which irrationality may breed and hence warns everyone against irrationality. For the prevention of irrationality, the topics he chose to reflect on were diverse—education, politics, war, peace, and so forth and so on. However, his emphasis on education seems to cover a wide literature. The reason perhaps is that as education is a vast platform, it can inculcate rationality in children from early childhood. Once the seed of rationality gets implanted in the children in accordance with the principle of growth via education, they would learn to focus on enlarging creative impulses. To learn to enlarge creative impulses means to learn to inculcate genuine thoughts. Inculcation of genuine thoughts would enable them learn preserve individuality on the one hand; on the other, it would help them grow socially. Alternatively speaking, to grow both individually and socially is to mean to grow the theoretical and practical aspects of rationality. Unless individuality in each child is preserved in education, education cannot make children grow freely. It is by growing freely children learn to imbibe genuine thoughts. Genuine thoughts are not scared of anything else, they are fearless. The fearlessness of genuine thoughts is due to its rational character—genuine thoughts seek uncover what is the casefact, which is the nerve of Russell’s philosophy of logical analysis. It is not the case that rationality, considered theoretically, moves towards objective truth, it is also equally the case that rationality in its practical aspect also aims at attainment of increasingly widespread intelligence. As the best life, Russell argues, is one which is built on creative impulses, education by virtue of being a creative impulse has to provide sufficient room for the growth of children (or students). As soon as children start learning how to grow, they would start leading best lives in future. This means that leading best lives depends on how children are being grown. Moreover, rationality as laid down by Russell contains element of dynamicity, because he says that all men are not equally rational which in turn means that it can be sharpened continuously. Rationality is not bestowed upon men once and for all. It is by sharpening rationality or by growing genuine thoughts men afford become rational. To become rational, on this count, would mean to become educated. In short, to become educated means to become critical and creative.