In Political Ideals (1917), Bertrand Russell wrote

The whole realm of thought and opinion is utterly unsuited to public control; it ought to be as free, and as spontaneous as is possible to those who know what others have believed. The state is justified in insisting that children shall be educated, but it is not justified in forcing their education to proceed on a uniform plan and to be directed to the production of a dead level of glib uniformity. Education, and the life of the mind generally, is a matter in which individual initiative is the chief thing needed; the function of the state should begin and end with insistence on some kind of education, and, if possible, a kind which promotes mental individualism, not a kind which happens to conform to the prejudices of government officials.

I've quoted a whole paragraph since I thought the subject may interest you. But I'm writing this post because I don't understand just the emboldened part: What does that mean in general? And who are "those who know what others have believed"?

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    Not sure what the difficulty is, but "as spontaneous as is possible" is apparently needed to exclude the hollow spontaneity of ignoramuses, for "a fool can ask more questions than seven wise men can answer" as an old proverb puts it. "Those who know what others have believed" are presumably those familiar with the history of thought, they are, Russell says, entitled to as much freedom as is consistent with holding informed opinions.
    – Conifold
    May 26, 2018 at 4:15
  • Thanks, @Conifold. It may appear as if he's saying intellectual freedom is only for the so-called intellectuals. If this is the case, which I think it isn't, he is limiting intellectual freedom. Maybe the problem arose because I'm a non-native English speaker.
    – apadana
    May 26, 2018 at 11:23
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    It means that freedom of expression should be given not only to those who profess beliefs of this age and this nation but also to those who know beliefs of other ages and other nations. May 26, 2018 at 22:45
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    Since he is talking about education, that paragraph says that educators should be as free as possible to teach whatever they like, be it beliefs of this age and nation, or beliefs of other ages and nations. May 26, 2018 at 22:55
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    He said freedom should be extended to possessors of heretic beliefs. He is not limiting this freedom only to those who are erudite. May 26, 2018 at 23:22

1 Answer 1


Like the questioner, I find this a somewhat odd clause - oddly worded at least. From what I can make out, Russell is talking only about freedom of thought & opinion and not, however close the relationship, about freedom of expression.

I understand Russell to be saying that the realm of thought and opinion should be free. There should be no public infiltration, constraints or impediments in the matter of what people think or what opinions they hold. The provision of an education that promotes mental individualism (rather on the model of John Stuart Mill's On LIberty) will improve the quality of their thoughts and opinions.

Where does 'spontaneity' fit in ? If you know what others have believed, say 'the great, dead philosophers' among others, this can inhibit your freedom of thought. It can be hard to think afresh about, or to bring an independent mind to bear on, topics on which your head is already full of knowledge of others' beliefs. You can still think for yourself but spontaneity, thinking in an unpremeditated, ininhibited way, has limits set by your prior acquaintance with a broad variety of opinions : you can think as spontaneously as possible but there are limits to the spontaneity of a mind well versed in others' beliefs.

I'm not sure I agree with this but it is what I think Russell is saying.

  • @David Blomstrom. Thanks. It's as well that Russell called the book, 'Political Ideals' - it certainly isn't political reality. Best - GT
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    May 31, 2018 at 8:36

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