Source: On the Nature of Acquaintance: Neutral Monism (1914), by Bertrand Russell

Maybe the following quote exemplifies difficult writing that besets me. If so, my angst only worsens; if I'm already confused by English writing in 1914, then how can I understand the perplexities of Hegel or Kant?

People are said to believe in God, or to disbelieve in Adam and Eve. But in such cases what is believed or disbelieved is that there is an entity answering a certain description. [1.] This, which can be believed or disbelieved is quite different from the actual entity (if any) which does answer the description. [2.] Thus the matter of belief is, in all cases, different in kind from the matter of sensation or presentation, and error is in no way analogous to hallucination. A hallucination is a fact, not an error; what is erroneous is a judgment based upon it.

1. What's the antecedent of (the demonstrative pronoun) this?

2. Please explain everything following thus, for which I don't see any explicit arguments? What do these nouns mean; how would a rational person judge based upon it (Is the antecedent 'hallucination' ?) ?

3. I'm unversed in philosophy, so does this explain my failure to determine the steps and thought processes in 2? Should I have been able to infer all meanings or read between the lines?

Footnote: I encountered this while reading this article on forums.philosophyforums.com

  • 2
    For #2, take the example of a mirage (you think you see water in the desert). There's no doubt that you saw water, the doubt lies in whether the water really exists in the real world. It's not the experience which is ever in doubt, but what is said about it.
    – R. Barzell
    Feb 23, 2015 at 14:17

2 Answers 2


Understanding involves knowing something about the context. This includes general biographical context: who is the author, and what are, in general, his views. And also knowing something about the specific context of the excerpt: What is the subject of the containing essay, how does the excerpt fit within the author's argument, how it is supposed to help the author's purpose.

Bertrand Russell, the author of the present excerpt, was a very clear writer. Still, he does present a certain peculiar problem for interpretation in that he changed his views quite a few times during his philosophical career. So when one reads a passage of Russell's, one has to dig in a bit, to find out what were Russell's views at the particular moment. So even though I've read Russell in the past, I also looked up the particular essay ( On the Nature of Acquaintance: Neutral Monism (1914) ) in order to look at the specific context of the passage.

This article discusses and criticizes Neutral Monism, a metaphysical theory of the American philosopher and psychologist William James. The theory was, briefly , that what we directly experience is neither material nor mental, but a "neutral stuff". And that both mind and matter are ultimately made of that "neutral stuff".

As to your specific questions:

  1. The antecedent of (the demonstrative pronoun) this is "that there is an entity answering a certain description".

  2. a. Sensing an object, for example a tree, is a passive experience. Judging or believing that the tree exists is a further, active step. That is the primary difference between hallucination and error. Hallucination, like sensing a pink elephant, is a passive experience. Only if I added the active judgement that the pink elephant that I sensed really existed, I would be in error.

b. The last word of your excerpt that you greyed, the word it, refers to the hallucination from the preceding sentence.

c. Russell does present a supporting argument, not inside the quoted passage itself, but right after it in the essay. Briefly, the argument is that if belief consisted just in experiencing something passively, whether I acted or not, a contradiction would result in the case where the belief was false.

d. If a rational person is hallucinating then, in general, if she is unaware of being hallucinated, she will judge that what she senses (say, a pink elephant) really exists. But if she suspects an hallucination, she will withhold judgement.

  1. Lack of experience in philosophy does limit one's ability to understand a passage such as this by oneself. Some knowledge of the context is needed in order to read between these lines. The stage of inexperience is, however, inevitable for everyone, and it is not a reason to quit. I'd recommend reading introductory books, alongside thinking and discussing philosophy with others. Also there are philosophers that are both intriguing and relatively easy to read, such as Plato and Descartes.
  1. 'This' refers to the proposition 'there exists an entity answering a certain description' in the previous sentence. Russell's point here is that the content of what we believe, which on his account is a proposition, is distinct from the entities which make that proposition true, or false, as the case may be. Here's an example: I can believe 'that God exists' irrespective of the existence of God - my belief of the proposition does not depend on the existence of the entity referred to in the proposition.

  2. Russell is drawing a distinction between two different kinds of knowledge here. We have, on the one hand knowledge 'by description', which relate to the kind of proposition I discussed in answer #1. On the other hand we have knowledge 'by acquaintance'. I'll give some examples. With knowledge by description what we know is distinct from the entity which is the object of that knowledge. So, for instance, I may know that the sun 1.4960×10^11m away from earth, even though I have never directly interacted with the sun, or measured the distance from it to earth. On the other hand I know that snow is white because I have directly interacted with snow - I have figured out firsthand that it is white. (This is very rough, and certainly not the whole story - see here for the details). Russell's point is that the content of a hallucination is not something we can be mistaken about in the same way that we can be mistaken about the content of a proposition like 'Adam and Eve once existed'.

  3. Not at all! Philosophy is difficult. Russell is especially difficult. You're stepping into a conversation that has been going on for the last ~2500 years or so; don't be discouraged if you can't pick up everything right away. There are plenty of good introductory textbooks out there that can help you find your bearing in philosophy - an amazon search should turn up tons. Even better, if you can afford it, take an intro philosophy course at your local college or online. And keep reading!

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