On Bertrand Russell’s “Public Neutral Objects”

The notion of the public neutral object as explored by Bertrand Russell is considered. The essential conflict between his prevalent paradigms and the concomitant postulation of the existence of such objects is first explored. Relevant views of other philosophers that enlighten the question by way of either support or refutation are then examined. It is ultimately argued that no consistent demonstration of either possibility can be independently achieved.Russell defines a public neutral object as one that can be “in some sense known to many different people” (Russell 197). He seemingly adopts this phraseology to reconcile the contradiction inherent in the situation whereby “sense-data are private to each separate person,” given that we aim for the absolute perception of “the same object [by] different people” (Russell 197). The essential problem in identifying such public neutral objects is that—as Russell readily admits—perception is so highly variable from one person to the next and, indeed, potentially fluctuant within the mind of any given individual. Consequently, the pursuit of “objects independent of [one’s] own sense-data [that] do not appeal to the testimony of other people” (Russell 197) is hopelessly doomed to failure.

Descartes argues that “cogito, ergo sum” and concludes thence that reality is entirely experiential, indeed, ineffable in absolute terms that are guaranteed to be acceptable on a catholic, let alone universal, basis (“Meditations”). He also argues for the absolute independence of objective, corporeal reality from the human mind, evidently asserting that an irremediable, if ultimately ineffable, detachment between conception and reality is always at play. This, too, tends to argue against the possibility that public neutral objects exist, since the guaranteed irreconcilability of various individuals’ perceptions makes it impossible to share any conception in terms that are immediately fungible against all possible frames of reference.

Aristotle would appear to argue (Aristotle) for some manner of objective reality that points to the sustainability of the argument in favor of public neutral objects. His identification of the “four causes” postulates a rigorously structured framework by which objective reality can be sensed, observed, measured, understood, and evaluated. While one may disagree that this formalism directly pertains to public neutral objects, it clearly descended from both Socratic and Platonic notions of truth and beauty. Since truth must ultimately be an absolute insofar as mutually contradictory assertions cannot concomitantly be tolerated, one may justifiably enjoy some liberty in tolerating the possibility, even the ubiquity, of such objects.

From a more pragmatic perspective, our ability formally to demonstrate contradictions among philosophic arguments for or against given constructs does not necessarily overrule the existence of those constructs. Indeed, since time immemorial, human beings have shown both the predilection and the ability to cooperate on projects of staggering complexity that have delivered intellectual achievements and attendant material embodiments ranging from the pyramids of Giza to the most intricate technological infrastructures. Whether or not individual perceptions of either unific systems or the individual components from which they are fashioned vary, it is obvious that sufficient commonality is found to enable work constructively to be performed. This seems particularly astonishing as a cross-cultural phenomenon insofar as, per computer science pioneer Benjamin Lee Whorf, “language shapes the way we think, and determines what we can think about” (“Language and Thinking”).

Clearly, suitably deftly manipulated, the canon of Western philosophy admits to glib arguments both for and against the postulated existence of public neutral objects. Perhaps the most fruitful resolution is achieved by noting, generically and with freely acknowledged imprecision, that even to argue about public neutral objects is essentially dependent upon the caprices of subjective perceptions of reality: as Protagoras the Sophist noted, “Of all things man is the measure” (Poster).

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Works Cited
Aristotle. “Physics.” University of Adelaide, 2015. Retrieved from https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/a/aristotle/physics/.
“Language and Thinking.” Introduction to Psychology. Retrieved from https://courses.lumenlearning.com/waymaker-psychology/chapter/reading-language-and-thought/.
“Meditations on First Philosophy.” University of Connecticut. Retrieved from http://selfpace.uconn.edu/class/percep/DescartesMeditations.pdf.
Poster, Carol. “Protagoras.” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved from https://www.iep.utm.edu/protagor/.
Russell, Bertrand. “Appearance and Reality and the Existence of Matter.” Class handout.