Russell, Ayer, Sartre, de Beauvoir, Camus

Oxbridge superstars Bertrand Russell (Cambridge) and A.J. Ayer (Oxford) are the classic 20th century British philosophers on tap in CoPhi today (Russell was actually born in the 1870s and made it to nearly the century mark). We’ll squeeze in another Cambridge don, Frank Ramsey, if time allows.

That’s a small philosophy pun, PB’s Ramsey expert Hugh Mellor is also an expert on time. And it’s in marginally bad taste too, given that poor Ramsey’s un-Russellian time was tragically short: he lived only to age 26. But as Mellor says, he accomplished far more than most philosophers manage in that fraction of a lifetime, including the “redundancy” theory of truth that (ironically, paradoxically!) implies the gratuity of theories of truth without disavowing truth’s centrality to philosophy. 

Hugh Mellor on time (he says relax, it’s not tensed”)…. Russell @dawn… Russell Ayer… Logicomix]

So much has been said about Russell, and by him. The truth question was pretty cut-and-dried, he thought, like religion and the pragmatic approach in general.

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There isn’t a practical reason for believing what isn’t true. If it’s true you should believe it, if it isn’t you shouldn’t… it’s dishonesty and intellectual treachery to hold a belief because you think it’s useful and not because you think it’s true. 

The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, but wiser men so full of doubts. 

And if there were a God, I think it very unlikely that He would have such an uneasy vanity as to be offended by those who doubt His existence. 

Fear is the main source of superstition, and one of the main sources of cruelty. To conquer fear is the beginning of wisdom. 

Do you think that, if you were granted omnipotence and omniscience and millions of years in which to perfect your world, you could produce nothing better than the Ku Klux Klan or the Fascists?  [Why I Am Not a Christian… More Russell]


Clearly, “for Russell there was no chance of God stepping in to save humanity.” The concept of an Afterlife is, to anticipate the over-zealotry  of A.J. Ayer’s indiscriminate philosophical wrecking ball, “nonsense.” We must save ourselves. (As Carl Sagan would later say, there’s no sign of help coming from anywhere “out there” to rescue us.)

Russell said family friend and “godfather” J.S. Mill provided a satisfactory answer to his own early childhood query, posed by so many of us: “What caused God?” If anything in the universe can exist without a cause, why can’t the universe itself?

Having settled the question of God to his own satisfaction, he turned full attention to the philosophy of logic and mathematics, to paradox, to set theory, and other conceptual conundra. If something is false when it’s true (“This sentence is false” etc.), then it’s back to the drawing board for the logicians. It’s not even a close shave. (Yes, that’s another marginal philosophy pun- this time alluding to Russell’s paradox of the barber who shaves only those who shave themselves.) As for the extent of my own interest in set theory and its ilk, I think young Ramsey said it best: “Suppose a contradiction were to be found in the axioms of set theory. Do you seriously believe that a bridge would fall down?” No I do not.


“How can we talk meaningfully about non-existent things?” That’s never really hung me up, nor anyone who appreciates good literature. Either young Russell was not a big reader of fiction, or maybe he thought he had to justify his reading. I’m glad he cared about “the present king of France,” but I frankly could care less.

A.J. (“Freddie”) Ayer, with his Verification Principle, loved to detect and discredit nonsense. Good for him, we’re choking on it. But he went too far. “Metaphysics” (not to mention “ethics” and “religion”) may have been a dirty word, for him, but there’s far more sense on earth (let alone in heaven, if a heaven there be) than was dreamt of in his Logical Positivism

Ayer, by the way, apparently had a Near Death Experience of his own, in his old age. Interesting, in light of his youthful philosophy as exposited in Language, Truth, and Logic, “in every sense” (he admitted while still a relatively young man) “a young man’s book, “according to which unverifiable statements are meaningless nonsense. 

Old Ayer claimed his premature dalliance with death in no way impinged on his atheism. But an acquaintance reported that “He became so much nicer after he died… not nearly so boastful. He took an interest in other people.” But again, Freddie denied that the experience made him “religious.” [continues here]


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…a sentence is factually significant to any given person, if, and only if, he knows how to verify the proposition which it purports to express — that is, if he knows what observations would lead him, under certain conditions, to accept the proposition as being true, or reject it as being false. 

“Stealing money is wrong” has no factual meaning — that is, expresses no proposition which can be either true or false. It is as if I had written “Stealing money!! 

No moral system can rest solely on authority. [Or as Russell said: nothing externally imposed can be of any value.]

There is philosophy, which is about conceptual analysis — about the meaning of what we say — and there is all of this … all of life.


And with that last insight the former Wykeham Professor of Logic may at last have hit on a profound truth far beyond formal language and pedantic logic. Ayer’s greatest moment, for my money:

One of the last of the many legendary contests won by the British philosopher A. J. Ayer was his encounter with Mike Tyson in 1987… Ayer — small, frail, slight as a sparrow and then 77 years old — was entertaining a group of models at a New York party when a girl ran in screaming that her friend was being assaulted in a bedroom. The parties involved turned out to be Tyson and Naomi Campbell. ”Do you know who [the bleep] I am?” Tyson asked in disbelief when Ayer urged him to desist: ”I’m the heavyweight champion of the world.” ”And I am the former Wykeham professor of logic,” Ayer answered politely. ”We are both pre-eminent in our field. I suggest that we talk about this like rational men.” nyt 

 He might have been inviting another NDE, right then and there! [Ayer’s “Language, Truth & Logic.” http://ift.tt/1y4G4ME]

Every moment of life, especially during the Occupation, was an NDE for the French existentialists, Sartre (& Mary Warnock on Sartre), de Beauvoir, and Camus. 


Jean-Paul Sartre, his companion Simone de Beauvoir, and their cohort Albert Camus were Resistance fighters as well as French intellectuals. “Paris needed a philosophy that would give to individuals a belief in themselves and their own powers,” says Lady W., and that’s what JPS and his cohort tried to give them. That’s important to remember, when considering the extremity of some of their statements. They were up against the wall, with Nazis in the parlor. And they’re on tap today in CoPhi. 


Warnock seems to find some of Sartre’s terms and concepts puzzling: existence precedes essence, “whatever that means!” But I always thought this was one of Sartre’s clearer statements: “if God does not exist there is at least one being whose existence comes before its essence, a being which exists before it can be defined by any conception of it.” And we are it.

What did Sartre mean by “freedom”? Inquiring minds want to know how any of us can be really free, when we still have payments to make on the fridge. Well, that’s the crux of Sartre’s “Roads to Freedom.” Isn’t it, Mrs. P? -“We’ll ask him.”

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“What was Jean-Paul like?”
-“He didn’t join in the fun much. Just sat there thinking…”

[Breaking: guess who’s getting back together?!]

Some more extreme Gallic/Existential statements:

  • “So this is hell. I’d never have believed it. You remember all we were told about the torture-chambers, the fire and brimstone, the “burning marl.” Old wives’ tales!There’s no need for red-hot pokers. HELL IS–OTHER PEOPLE!”
  • “Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does. “Life has no meaning a priori … It is up to you to give it a meaning, and value is nothing but the meaning that you choose.”
  • “Life has no meaning, the moment you lose the illusion of being eternal.”
  • “Words are loaded pistols.”
  • “Life begins on the other side of despair.”
  • “Nothingness lies coiled in the heart of being – like a worm.”
  • “There is no love apart from the deeds of love; no potentiality of love other than that which is manifested in loving; there is no genius other than that which is expressed in works of art.”
  • “An individual chooses and makes himself.”
  • “If I became a philosopher, if I have so keenly sought this fame for which I’m still waiting, it’s all been to seduce women basically.”
  • “It is disgusting — Why must we have bodies?”
  • “I carry the weight of the world by myself alone without help, engaged in a world for which I bear the whole responsibility without being able, whatever I do, to tear myself away from this responsibility for an instant.”
  • “Life is a useless passion.”
  • “There is only one day left, always starting over: It is given to us at dawn and taken away from us at dusk.”
And so it goes. Picture him dropping his verbal cluster-bombs in a dingy Parisian cafe, ringed by his own unfiltered smoke and an adoring cultish audience, all wondering if he and his confreres would live to fight another day. “Useless passion”? Generations of Sartre’s politically (if not metaphysically) free French successors might disagree. But removed from that context, I find these weaponish words hard to love. At least the guy who said hell is other people liked cats.
  • “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.”
  • “She was ready to deny the existence of space and time rather than admit that love might not be eternal.”
  • “A man attaches himself to woman — not to enjoy her, but to enjoy himself. ”
  • “If you live long enough, you’ll see that every victory turns into a defeat.”
  • “I am incapable of conceiving infinity and yet I do not accept finity.”
  • “Few tasks are more like the torture of Sisyphus than housework, with its endless repetition: the clean becomes soiled, the soiled is made clean, over and over, day after day.”
  • “I am awfully greedy; I want everything from life. I want to be a woman and to be a man, to have many friends and to have loneliness, to work much and write good books, to travel and enjoy myself, to be selfish and to be unselfish… You see, it is difficult to get all which I want. And then when I do not succeed I get mad with anger.”
  • “Man is defined as a human being and a woman as a female — whenever she behaves as a human being she is said to imitate the male.”
  • “Fathers never have exactly the daughters they want because they invent a notion a them that the daughters have to conform to.”
  • “Why one man rather than another? It was odd. You find yourself involved with a fellow for life just because he was the one that you met when you were nineteen.”
  • “Self-consciousness is not knowledge but a story one tells about oneself.”

Some stories ring truer than others though, no? De Beauvoir rings truer than Sartre, most of the time, for me. And Albert Camus with his Sisyphean view of life offers the starkest challenge when he says the ultimate question in philosophy is that of suicide. “Should I kill myself, or have a cup of coffee?” More coffee! It makes me happy, and it’s the braver choice. But no room for cream, please.

Camus also said

  • “You will never be happy if you continue to search for what happiness consists of. You will never live if you are looking for the meaning of life.”
  • “There are causes worth dying for, but none worth killing for.”
  • “I do not believe in God and I am not an atheist.”
  • “Always go too far, because that’s where you’ll find the truth.”
  • “Real generosity toward the future lies in giving all to the present.”
Albert Camus gave us the Existential version of Sisyphus, and the “fundamental question of philosophy”:
“There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. All the rest — whether or not the world has three dimensions, whether the mind has nine or twelve categories — comes afterwards. These are games; one must first answer.”
OK, got it. My answer is yes, of course life is worth living. Living’s not always easy, but there’s usually something to show for your hard work. It can be a source of happiness. (And what does Sisyphus do after hours?)

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The next question, having consented to live, is how. Politics is supposed to help with that. But in this perpetual season of political discontent, when the polls say all politicians and parties are uniformly scorned by the populace, there have been moments when many of us have wondered if it’s all worth it. Camus felt the same.
“Every time I hear a political speech or I read those of our leaders, I am horrified at having, for years, heard nothing which sounded human. It is always the same words telling the same lies. And the fact that men accept this, that the people’s anger has not destroyed these hollow clowns, strikes me as proof that men attribute no importance to the way they are governed; that they gamble – yes, gamble – with a whole part of their life and their so called ‘vital interests.”

Politics was supposed to be all about freeing the people to pursue happiness, Mr. Jefferson said. If it’s hard to imagine Sisyphus happy, it may be harder to expect that from our politics these days. But we must keep on pushing.

Sisyphus, for such a grim figure, has been a ripe source of amusement for a lot of us.


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