In the introduction to his sweeping History of Western Philosophy, Bertrand Russell wastes no time getting to a definition of his subject. “The conceptions of life and the world which we call ‘philosophical,’” he writes in the first sentence, “are a product of two factors: one, inherited religious and ethical conceptions; the other, the sort of investigation which may be called ‘scientific,’ using the word in its broadest sense. … Philosophy, as I shall understand the word, is something intermediate between theology and science.” (Russell makes a similar argument, in slightly different terms, in the essay “Mysticism and Logic.”)
Sidgwick’s Legacy? Russell and Moore on Meaning and Philosophical Inquiry
Recently, my teenage son and I were talking about a discussion he and his peers had about feminism and what constitutes being a feminist. It was a lively dialogue between father and son and we talked about different schools of feminism and why feminism is important. My points were benign: It’s good to think about issues like feminism and it’s important to think about them carefully, because you need to have a critical opinion you formed yourself rather than aping someone else’s point of view. A couple of the points that his group of peers raised seemed suspect, too, aimed strictly at marginalising radical feminism or at being extremely reductive of feminism overall. I said as much, trying to explain why you need to understand the bigger picture of how schools of thought relate and what they mean, rather than pigeonholing the world and calling it a day.
Partway through this father and son discussion, it occurred to me that our dialogue played into a series of semi-lucid thoughts that I had been having about the value of critical thinking and teaching some basic philosophical skills to our next generation. We live in a time when many things are under attack, whether it’s the attack on science by the religious right, attacks on privacy by our own governments, attacks on women’s rights (or attacks on women themselves), attacks on the value of a liberal arts education or even attacks on philosophy itself from smart, influential people who are kicking the shins of the very discipline without which their own would not exist. In those semi-lucid thoughts, the world has forgotten about the value of raising critical, independent thinkers.
And then my thoughts became more radical and I remembered what Bertrand Russell said about education:
Our system of education turns young people out of the schools able to read, but for the most part unable to weigh evidence or to form an independent opinion. They are then assailed, throughout the rest of their lives, by statements designed to make them believe all sorts of absurd propositions
–Bertrand Russell, Free Thought and Official Propaganda (1922)
Bertrand Russell was an iconoclast. An atheist. A conscientious objector. A strong voice against the use of the atomic bomb. A brilliant mathematician and philosopher. An advocate of sexual freedom. One of the intellectual giants of the 20th century. A fine writer. And he lived to be 97!
An individual human existence should be like a river–small at first, narrowly contained within its banks, and rushing passionately past rocks and over waterfalls. Gradually the river grows wider, the banks recede, the waters flow more quietly, and in the end, without any visible break, they become merged in the sea, and painlessly lose their individual being. The man who, in old age, can see his life in this way, will not suffer from the fear of death, since the things he cares for will continue. And if, with the decay of vitality, weariness increases, the thought of rest will not be unwelcome. I should wish to die while still at work, knowing that others will carry on what I can no longer do and content in the thought that what was possible has been done. – Bertrand Russell, “How to Grow Old”
This essay is from Portraits from Memory and Other Essays.
After ages during which the earth produced harmless trilobites and butterflies, evolution progressed to the point at which it generated Neros, Genghis Khans, and Hitlers. This, however, is a passing nightmare; in time the earth will become again incapable of supporting life, and peace will return.- BERTRAND RUSSELL, Unpopular Essays
The Nature of Philosophical Problems: Their Causes and Implications
John Kekes, The Nature of Philosophical Problems: Their Causes and Implications, Oxford University Press, 2014, 238pp., $55.00 (hbk), ISBN 9780198712756.
Reviewed by Robert Almeder, Georgia State University
The author’s Introduction begins with a quote from Ludwig Wittgenstein:
What is the use of studying philosophy if all it does for you is to enable you to talk with some plausibility about some abstruse questions of logic, etc., and if it does not improve your thinking about the important questions of everyday life. (vii)
Kekes then states that his aim is to explain why basic philosophical problems are perennial, why they are exceptionally difficult, and “why many centuries of hard work by excellent minds has not resulted in a generally acceptable solution of any of them” (vii). He believes that many excellent books and articles trading in ingenious counterexamples are, and have been, written with increasingly technical skill showing why contrary views cannot handle ever more ingenious counterexamples. But, he asserts, that their connection with the basic problems that prompted the highly skillful work “gets lost in the accumulation of increasingly complex detail whose significance only a handful of specialists working on that small segment of the basic problem can understand” (vii).
Kekes seeks further to explain why philosophical problems are, and will forever remain, perennial (i.e., without generally accepted solutions), and to say a little about how we might nevertheless cope with them reasonably in an effort to make our lives better and happier. He affirms also that in the modern world philosophy has changed; it has become an academic specialty. Research in it is a skill, with the sad consequence that philosophy has become increasingly remote from everyday life. Seldom, if ever, does philosophy seem to bear any relevance to basic problems about how to live in our complex and dangerous world.
Some time ago now I tried an interactive approach to a presentation I gave for the Unitarian fellowship. It took a bit of prodding, but soon the responses started coming and we had a good discussion. I hope we can discuss these ideas here too.
Here are the notes for the presentation:
What is Philosophy good for?
Philosophy is quite unlike any other field. It is unique both in its methods and in the nature and breadth of its subject matter. Philosophy pursues questions in every dimension of human life, and its techniques apply to problems in any field of study or endeavor. No brief definition expresses the richness and variety of philosophy. It may be described in many ways. It is a reasoned pursuit of fundamental truths, a quest for understanding, a study of principles of conduct. It seeks to establish standards of evidence, to provide rational methods of resolving conflicts, and to create techniques for evaluating ideas and arguments. Philosophy develops the capacity to see the world from the perspective of other individuals and other cultures; it enhances one’s ability to perceive the relationships among the various fields of study; and it deepens one’s sense of the meaning and varieties of human experience.
Philosophy is the systematic study of ideas and issues, a reasoned pursuit of fundamental truths, a quest for a comprehensive understanding of the world, a study of principles of conduct, and much more. Every domain of human existence raises questions to which its techniques and theories apply, and its methods may be used in the study of any subject or the pursuit of any vocation. Indeed, philosophy is in a sense inescapable: life confronts every thoughtful person with some philosophical questions, and nearly everyone is often guided by philosophical assumptions, even if unconsciously. One need not be unprepared. To a large extent one can choose how reflective one will be in clarifying and developing one’s philosophical assumptions, and how well prepared one is for the philosophical questions life presents. Philosophical training enhances our problem-solving capacities, our abilities to understand and express ideas, and our persuasive powers. It also develops understanding and enjoyment of things whose absence impoverishes many lives: such things as aesthetic experience, communication with many different kinds of people, lively discussion of current issues, the discerning observation of human behavior, and intellectual zest. In these and other ways the study of philosophy contributes immeasurably in both academic and other pursuits.
Today I would like to engage you in a conversation, a sort of interactive sermon. I’ll begin by asking you to respond to a few quotations. Something like this read from a printed book:
Assertion: Thou shalt have no other Gods before me.
Answer: The Lord thy God is a jealous God.
No, not like that. That comes from my childhood memories of the Lutheran Church. (I remember asking the pastor what God could possibly be jealous of, and he responded “Just read the response; don’t ask questions!”) The catechism had all the answers in a scripted text where even the questions were closed. So, today, unlike the old fashioned readings where the congregation’s responses are written down to be recited in unison, I’ll ask for individual responses, extemporaneous responses. I have every reason to believe that this approach will prove fruitful with a thoughtful group of Unitarians.