Posts Tagged ‘Bertrand Russell’

Russell’s delight

May 18, 2013

More walkers of note: Erasmus, Hobbes, Montaigne, Jefferson, Kierkegaard, Bentham, Darwin, Twain, Russell, Einstein…

Some walking quotes of note:

  • “Walking is the best medicine.” Hippocrates
  • “Walking is the best possible exercise.” Jefferson
  • “My mind only works with my legs.” Rousseau
  • “If I could not walk far and fast, I think I should just explode and perish.” Dickens
  • “Walking is good to time the movement of the tongue by, and keep the blood and the brain stirred up and active.” Twain
  • “All truly great thoughts are conceived while walking.” Nietzsche
  • “I delight in long free walks. These free my brain and serve my body.” Emerson
  • “It was easier to think if I was walking and doing something or seeing people doing something that they understood.” Hemingway
  • “You know you’re alive. You take huge steps, trying to feel the planet’s roundness arc between your feet.” Dillard
  • “I used, when I was younger, to take my holidays walking. I would cover twenty-five miles a day, and when the evening came I had no need of anything to keep me from boredom, since the delight of sitting amply sufficed.” Russell

Like  Russell I’m hooked on morning rambles. “Every morning Bertie would go for an hour’s walk by himself, composing and thinking out his work for that day. He would then come back and write for the rest of the morning, smoothly, easily and without a single correction…”

I’m already clocking an hour a morning. Now, to master the rest of that routine!

Bertie lived to 98. I choose to see a connection.

Freud, Russell, Ayer, time

March 21, 2013

Time in CoPhi for FreudRussellAyer, and Hugh Mellor on time (he says relax, it’s not “tensed”). [Freud and Russell @dawn]

A.J. (“Freddie”) Ayer, by the way, apparently had a Near Death Experience of his own. He claimed it 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]

…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.

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


There isn’t a practical reason for believing what isn’t true. It it’s true you should believe it, if it isn’t you should not… it’s 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]



Freud is darker than Nietzsche… Sheer joy and sheer affirmation of life is pretty hard to find, if you’re being absolutely honest about what reality is.

As long as your ideas of what’s possible are limited by what’s actual, no other idea has a chance.

If life is a gift, then the more you partake in it, the more you show thanks.

[Susan Neiman, Moral Clarity: A Guide for Grown-up Idealists]


Back to the question of time: Mellor’s point is that time lacks objective tense (past, present, future), not that it is an illusion. This may take some time to grasp, for

 if you think of tense as a feature of the world, that is an illusion. [But] what is not an illusion is that we are in the world, and need to think about it, and especially about how to act in it, in terms of tense… time itself– tenseless time, what makes events earlier and later than each other– is indeed a real feature both of the world, and of our experience of it.

So does he agree with Einstein, who said ”the separation between past, present, and future is only an illusion, although a convincing one,” or not? Yes and no.
Time and again, time after time, the intersection of philosophy and physics is maddeningly inconclusive. Add history to the mix and you get logic-defying paradox. The Vulcan Science Directorate has determined (willdetermine?) that time travel is impossible. But apparently that just goes for this actual universe, at this point in time. Hmmm. Logic aside, however, it’s at least biologically impossible to go into the past and annihilate your own forebears. That should be reassuring, though of course it would destroy a lot of amusing plot-points in film and fiction (not to mention Trek).
BTW: we might want to use this topic as a springboard back to Nietzsche and his strange notion of eternal recurrence. And what about Deja Vu, all over again? Have we all been here before? Well, that would imply the real existence of tense, wouldn’t it?
Does your head hurt yet, Geordi? Or yet again?
I think Tagore’s butterfly still has the best perspective on time.

The happy “citizen of the universe”

October 13, 2011

We finish Russell’s Conquest today, even though he already told us the secret of happiness* back in chapter 10 and we talked about it last time.

But there’s more. “Even the dullest work is to most people less painful than idleness.” Not that Lord Russell ever had to turn himself to the dullest work. He flipped no burgers, for sure, and had no electronic diversions to fill idle hours. And there are times when “thinking of nothing and doing nothingare deeply gratifying. But in general, idleness and soul-crushing boredom go hand-in-glove.

Impersonal Interests are those “lying outside the main activities” of your life and work. I’m still taking a very intense impersonal interest in the MLB postseason, for instance. (Cards win!)

The world is full of things that are tragic or comic, heroic or bizarre or surprising, and those who fail to be interested in the spectacle that it offers are forgoing one of the privileges that life has to offer.

Those who do cultivate a wide and varied interest in life’s rich pagaent, though, experience “deep happiness.” Life becomes communion with the ages, personal death pales to insignificance (“a negligible incident”).

That’s a little sketchy, but (speaking for myself) Russell’s cosmic pedagogical perspective– he calls it Spinoza’s, which would also make it Einstein’s– again inspires.

I should seek to make young people vividly aware of the past, vividly realising that the future of man will in all likelihood be immeasurably longer than his past, profoundly conscious of the minuteness of the planet upon which we live and of the fact that life on this planet is only a temporary incident…

Makes you feel sort of small and insignificant, eh Mrs. Brown? But Russell has the antidote to feelings of personal smallness engendered by reflections on the vastness of the cosmos. Just remember

the greatness of which the individual is capable, and the knowledge that throughout all the depths of stellar space nothing of equal value is known to us. 

In other words, just remember that you’re standing on a planet that’s evolving and…

Effort and Resignation. This chapter  begins with grudging praise for Aristotelian moderation, the key to balancing personal ambition with fate. The race is not always to the swift etc., so we’d best be prepared not to realize all our dreams… and still be happy. The “golden mean” is key, opening us to insights like:

Health is a blessing which no one can be sure of preserving; marriage is not invariably a source of bliss. [So] happiness must for most be an achievement rather than a gift of the gods.

In a thousand ways the failure of purely personal hopes may by unavoidable, but if personal aims have been part of larger hopes for humanity, there is not the same utter defeat when failure comes.

The man who is working for some much-needed reform may find all his efforts sidetracked by a war, and may be forced to realise that what he has worked for will not come about in his lifetime. But he need not on that account sink into complete despair, provided that he is interested in the future of mankind apart from his own participation in it.

Worry and fret and irritation are emotions which serve no purpose… in the history of the cosmos the event in question has no very great importance.

It’s all about shucking the false skin of isolated selfhood, tribal exclusion, and narrow nationalism. The Happy Man or woman is

a citizen of the universe, enjoying freely the spectacle that it offers and the joys that it affords, untroubled by the thought of death because he feels himself not really separate from those who will come after him. It is in such profound instinctive union with the stream of life that the greatest joy is to be found.

So there you have it. Go find, and enjoy. And enjoy your Fall Break.

Then begin enjoying Jennifer Hecht’s Myth of Happiness for next time.

*The secret of happiness is this: let your interests be as wide as possible , and let your reactions to the things and persons that interest you be as far as possible friendly rather than hostile.

Well, maybe. But maybe those other Brits were onto something too:

Well, it’s nothing special. Try and be nice to people, avoid eating fat, read a good book every now and then, get some walking in and try and live together in peace and harmony with people of all creeds and nations.

But that’s fundamentally all the same advice, isn’t it?

“The secret of happiness is this…”

October 11, 2011

Happily, we turn to the “causes of happiness” in SOL today. Part Two of Russell’s Conquest (here at a nifty Japanese site, replete with quirky illustrations)  accentuates the positive.  Good, I’ve had more than enough competition (but *Go Cards!), boredom, fatigue, envy, sin, and public opinion.

For starters, he says, talk to your gardener. So I did. My wife is definitely happier than average, and more in touch with the roots of life. (They love her at Moore & Moore.) Like Russell’s gardener she enjoys defeating rabbits and other garden scourges. “Pleasures exactly similar to those of my gardener are open to the most highly educated people.” Mine too. She’s among them, in fact.

Then there’s a curious discussion of the “men of science” that tells us something of how far we’ve fallen in the 80+ years since Russell was able to generalize from Einstein. Scientific men and women nowadays have Michelle Bachman and Rick Perry and their ilk to contend with. “Very few can be genuinely happy in a life involving continual self-assertion against the skepticism of the mass of mankind.” Right. How would Uncle Albert have responded to the war on science waged by our climate skeptics and Young Earth creationists?

Or, with more verbal articulation (and bigger hair):

Some more noteworthy Russellian wisdom:

The pleasure of work is open to any one who can develop some specialized skill, provided that he can get satisfaction from the exercise of his skill without demanding universal applause.

Companionship and cooperation are essential elements in the happiness of the average man…

Belief in a cause is a source of happiness… I cannot advocate any happiness based upon what seem to me to be false beliefs… [but a worthy cause is] a complete antidote to the feeling that life is empty.

Any pleasure that does no harm to other people is to be valued.

*Consider the passionate joy of the baseball fan…

Fundamental happiness depends more than anything else upon what may be called a friendly interest in persons and things.

To like many people spontaneously and without effort is perhaps the greatest of all sources of personal happiness.

The secret of happiness is this: let your interests be as wide as possible , and let your reactions to the things and persons that interest you be as far as possible friendly rather than hostile.

The most universal and distinctive mark of happy men [is] zest.

Russell has been cadging from William James, for whom life becomes most “significant” when we locate ideals outside ourselves that elicit our greatest energies and ambitions. The solid meaning of life is a “marriage” of such ideals with “some fidelity, courage, and endurance; with some man’s or woman’s pains.”

With “zest” Russell makes his indebtedness to James nearly explicit.

The lustre of the present hour is always borrowed from the background of possibilities it goes with… Let faith and hope be the atmosphere which man breathes in;—and his days pass by with zest.

“Zest” is one of James’s favorite words, charged with the vibrancy of experience not as a metaphysical category but the felt movement of life as literal inspiration, something to draw in and express through all the pores of one’s being.

Zest seems to be one of Russell’s favorite words too, earning an entire chapter of its own. Remember the first time he mentioned it? You couldn’t miss the echo of James there. (I can’t, anyway.)

I believe this unhappiness to be very largely due to mistaken views of the world, mistaken ethics, mistaken habits of life, leading to destruction of that natural zest and appetite for possible things upon which all happiness, whether of men or animals, ultimately depends.

More zest from Russell:

What hunger is in relation to food, zest is in relation to life.

Genuine zest is part of the natural make-up of human beings… Young children are interested in everything that they see and hear; the world is full of surprises to them, and they are perpetually engaged with ardour in the pursuit of knowledge, not, of course, of scholastic knowledge, but of the sort that consists in acquiring familiarity with the objects that attract their attention.

Animals, even when adult, retain their zest provided they are in health.

Russell was a notorious advocate of “free love,” a serial philanderer whose passions knew no bounds. He sought zest in varied “affection”… and in family life. He saw no contradiction. Do we?


Don’t worry, be happy

October 6, 2011

Today in SOL, more from Bertrand Russell on the causes of unhappiness. We’ve looked at the Byronic/Ecclesiastic/”lost cause” form of constitutional unhappiness, at competition, and at boredom. Now we’ll consider  “fatigue, envy, (the sense of) sin,  persecution mania,  & fear of public opinion.”

Physical fatigue can be a good thing, it calms and relaxes. That’s one reason why I try to spend an hour a day on shank’s mare, on two manually-powered wheels, or (on bad days) in the gym. On the other hand, it can be an inconvenient obstacle to mental labor in the absence of compensating stimuli (like, say, another postseason MLB victory by your team).

Nervous fatigue is something else again. Remember, Russell wrote this book in the Depression-era ’30s. We can relate more readily to his discussion of fear for one’s job or income as a source of such fatigue, perhaps, than to the presence of strangers in the subway. In any event, he says, fatigue comes from worry, a form of fear that can be mitigated by a better philosophy of life and greater control of one’s thoughts.

I’ve been worrying lately, for instance, about how to get everyone in SOL more actively involved in the course. Lost some sleep over it last night, in fact.

Men take their business worries to bed with them, and in the hours of the night, when they should be gaining fresh strength to cope with tomorrow’s troubles,  they are going over and over again in their minds problems about which at the moment they can do nothing, thinking about them, not in a way to produce a sound line of conduct on the morrow, but in that half-insane way that characterizes the troubled meditations of insomnia. Something of the night madness still clings about them in the morning, clouding their judgment, spoiling their temper, and making every obstacle infuriating.

Tell me about it. I really needed to be thinking about other things at 4 am, or about nothing at all. The good news from Lord Russell: “it is quite possible to shut out the ordinary troubles of ordinary days…”

It comes back again to what we heard Dr. Flicker say the other day, and to what Russell wrote of happiness and the cosmic perspective in “Why I’m Not a Christian.” He says it here too. The universe will little note nor long remember who shows up to talk about happiness today. “Our doings are not so important… nothing that happens to oneself has any cosmic importance.” William James said a similar thing in defending the will (he really meant right) to believe:

Our errors are surely not such awfully solemn things. In a world where we are so certain to incur them in spite of all our caution, a certain lightness of heart seems healthier than this excessive nervousness on their behalf.

Russell conquered his stage-fright about public speaking with such reflections. My friend Andy in Huntsville admits, much to the surprise of his friends, that this is one of his own persistent sources of anxiety. I’ll remind him to read his Russell.

Also intriguing is the advice to let your unconscious and subconscious (what’s the difference, again, Dr. Freud?) work for you “underground”:

“A conscious thought can be planted in the unconscious” and eventually bear fruit without your seeming to lift a finger or lose a moment’s rest. Isn’t that why it’s easier to write after a good night’s sleep, too?

And then there’s this congenial convergence with Buddhism: “one’s ego is no very large part of the world.” Easier said than slept on, at 4 in the morning. But true nonetheless. The formula is simple: more courage=less worry=less fatigue=more happiness.

Most impressive to me is Russell’s acknowledgment of attention as the crucial faculty. We can develop “the habit of thinking of things at the right time,” we can manipulate our own unconscious, and we can restore healing “contact with Earth.”

More conquering wisdom:

Envy is the basis of democracy… Whoever wishes to increase human happiness must wish to increase admiration and to diminish envy,” and it had better begin in childhood.  (Same for the “sense of sin.”) “The habit of thinking in terms of comparison is a fatal one.”

We “must learn to transcend self… to acquire the freedom of the Universe.”

“The ideally virtuous man… permits the enjoyment of all good things whenever there is no evil consequence to outweigh the enjoyment.” Spoken like a Brit who’s read his Mill.

“The hatred of reason which is common in our time…”

“…don’t expect others to take as much interest in you as you do yourself.”

“Young people are ill-advised if the yield to the pressure of the old in any vital matter.” Teachers and parents, take heed.

“…people should be natural, and should follow their spontaneous tastes in so far as these are not definitely antisocial.”

“The best way to increase toleration is to multiply the number of individuals who enjoy real happiness…”

NOTE the recent revised reissue of this book, by Tim Phillips: A Modern-Day Interpretation

NOTE TO STUDENTS: despite Russell’s timely reminder to take the large view of small worries, I am still worrying about the fate of those of you who are still not taking seriously the attendance/participation requirement of our course. So, I’m looking forward to seeing posts on our course website from you all today, and then seeing you all in your seats at 1 pm – barring medical or other emergency, like (say) an occupation of Nashville

“Turn your attention to other things” and be happy: Bertrand Russell

October 4, 2011

We begin Bertrand Russell‘s Conquest of Happiness in SOL today. Woody Allen’s Dr. Flicker must have read Russell.

The wise man will be as happy as circumstances permit, and if he finds the contemplation of the unvierse painful beyond a point, he will contemplate something else instead.


Nobody really worries much about what is going to happen
millions of years hence. Even if they think they are worrying much about that, they are really deceiving themselves. They are worried about something much more mundane, or it may merely be a bad digestion; but nobody is really seriously rendered unhappy by the thought of something that is going to happen to this world millions and millions of years hence. Therefore, although it is of course a gloomy view to suppose that life will die out — at least I suppose we may say so, although sometimes when I contemplate the things that people do with their lives I think it is almost a consolation — it is not such as to render life miserable. It merely makes you turn your attention to other things.

The younger Russell was much like Allen’s “Alvy,” burdened by the weight of the world and compelled to lighten it by seeking certainty. Several good biographies attest to this (Monk, Clark), as does the breezier recent graphic novel Logicomix.

Older Russell was disabused of that quest, and– to judge by our book, as I read it– was a much happier man.  He was much more attuned to present satisfactions, much less hostage to future attainments. Now he enjoys life, he writes as an older and wiser egg. He’s learned to pursue what he most desires, and he’s “successfully dismissed certain objects of desire – such as the acquisition of indubitable knowledge”…  but mostly he credits “a diminishing preoccupation with myself.” He learned “to center my attention upon external objects,” not as sources of ultimate happiness in the future but as objects of interest and action in the present.

The habit of looking to the future and thinking that the whole meaning of the present lies in what it will bring forth is a pernicious one. There can be no value in the whole unless there is value in the parts.

And, in life’s brevity resides its capacity for beauty.

…if I lived forever the joys of life would inevitably in the end lose their savor.

But Russell had wise words for future generations, including you & me:

My purpose is to suggest a cure for the ordinary day-to-day unhappiness from which most people in civilized countries suffer, and which is all the more unbearable because, having no obvious external cause, it appears inescapable. I believe this unhappiness to be very largely due to mistaken views of the world, mistaken ethics, mistaken habits of life, leading to the destruction of that natural zest and appetite for possible things upon which all happiness ultimately depends.

With due respect to Lord Russell, there were a few obvious external causes of discontent in 1930 and there are today. Have you been watching Ken Burns’ “Prohibition“? Russell comes off as a supporter of the 18th amendment here, denying that drink can be a “pathway to joy” –  but as a Brit, of course, he wasn’t tempted to demonize it as a road to hell, either.

His  main point, though, is that we resort to external excuses for what is after all an inner turmoil of spirit. This is one way in which, ironically, Russell tilts more toward Matthieu Ricard than to Barbara Ehrenreich. “Changes in the social system to promote happiness” are necessary, but hardly sufficient. Happiness is a relatively-selfless state of mind. You can’t ignore your own heart’s desires, but to be interested only in oneself “is not admirable.” Megalomaniacs and narcissists aggrandize themselves, they don’t make themselves (or their associates) happy.

“I was not born happy.” No, he was born under a cloud of scandal. He was also born with a silver spoon. A mostly-irrelevant material and social advantage, do we think? But it’s hard to read much of Russell, especially in his playful “Why I am Not a Christian” mood, without gaining the impression that his personal genetic “set-point” for happiness must’ve been pretty high to begin with. The tone of A Free Man’s Worship (YouT)is more elegiac, but it seems to come from a place of ingrained deep-seated contentment with the world.

Finally, this is not a very prevalent contemporary attitude, but I think Russell was dead on:

A happy life must be to a great extent a quiet life, for it is only in an atmosphere of quiet that true joy can live.

That’s not the most welcome news, in this cacophony of a 21st century,  but it may be what we need most to hear. So, later this afternoon I’m turning my attention to a nice quiet ballgame. Go Cards!

“The point is to live,” said Sisyphus

April 26, 2011

And then he died, in a car wreck. Age 46. Absurd, no?

It’s the last day of class (again)  in Intro to Philosophy, before exams next week, so some of us are happy. But the last day is also always a little bittersweet. Seems we just get started, then before you know it comes the time we have to say good-bye. But, I’m so glad we had this time together

Logicomix concludes. Russell turns from his obsession with the foundations of mathematics to the larger search for the human “conquest of happiness.” Not that math can’t make a mathematician happy… but we’re not all mathematicians. We are all human. We mustn’t confuse our “maps” with reality, or our certainties with heaven.

Russell seems to have been happy, at last, with the ultimate uncertainties of living. He didn’t stop analyzing, but he did stop “deadening ze emotions.” He rejected the pessimism and “unrestrained voluptuousness” young Wittgenstein had triggered, and found redemptive meaning in love and compassion. He found joy in paternity.

Sisyphus was happy too, according to Camus. (“One must consider Sisyphus happy.”) Did he  understand the secret of life to be meaningful work? Any work can be made meaningful enough to make life worth living, seems to be his point, for those who throw themselves into their lives and help others.

“The point is to live,” said Camus, before his life ended so abruptly. His end punctuates his point: meaning is to be sought in the actual living of our lives and not in the hard particulars of our dying, “behind the wheel” or wherever. We must consider him no longer happy, but also no longer seeking. I’ll bet he’d get a laugh, though, out of the recent controversy in France over his mortal remains. So useless to ask him why, throw a kiss and say good-bye. (I don’t know why Steely Dan suddenly sounds like existentialism to me. More absurdity, I s’pose.)

Heidegger talked a lot about being thrown, too. [That’s Simon Critchley on geworfenheit, or “thrownness”… and here he is on learning to die and other fun stuff.] Evidently he threw himself into his work for the Reich, and lately is reaping the reward of a  bad reputation. His being-in-the-world, his Dasein, has departed. There’s no longer any there worth Being, there. [heroes & villains]

Jean-Paul Sartre said we exist before we acquire any specific or essential identity, leaving us either dreadfully or bracingly free (depending on attitude) to invent ourselves. But it’s very hard to be free in good faith, since our perpetual tendency is to objectify ourselves and one another. But you can’t be a free person in the same way an inkwell is an inkwell. Well, duh.

Here’s Sartre hosting Mrs. Premise and Mrs. Conclusion.

Sartre’s paramour Simone de Beauvoir pushed him to place his abstract talk about freedom in its real world social contexts, and to acknowledge the additional patriarchal obstacles in the way of women’s liberation.

[Solomon: From Existentialism to Postmodernism]

Postmodernists say philosophy, defined as the search for truth, is moribund. But New Agers, even the looniest, show there’s still an appetite and an audience for wisdom pursued passionately, a hunger for philosophy only living can sate.

Postmodernism‘s strange claim is that there is no truth, only “discourse”; and New Age philosophy sponsors various “loony-tunes” attempts to feed a nonetheless-encouraging hunger for philosophy in our time. But have they got a secret?

[What the [bleep’]… The SecretOprahreviewWhy People Believe Weird ThingsShermer @TED]

Our authors get it right at the end: We need to be not more clever (or weird) but, rather, better listeners. May the conversations and the examination of life continue.

And with that, we ring down the curtain on another semester of Intro to Philosophy. I hope everyone takes this away:

Philosophy is to be studied, not for the sake of any definite answers to its questions since no definite answers can, as a rule, be known to be true, but rather for the sake of the questions themselves; because these questions enlarge our conception of what is possible, enrich our intellectual imagination and diminish the dogmatic assurance which closes the mind against speculation; but above all because, through the greatness of the universe which philosophy contemplates, the mind also is rendered great, and becomes capable of that union with the universe which constitutes its highest good.

-Bertrand Russell, The Value of Philosophy

And as promised, Mr. Einstein gets the last word: “The important thing is to never stop questioning.”

Bertie Russell, yet another quester for certainty.

April 19, 2011

And now we turn to Logicomix, an epic search for truth in the form of a graphic novel. [Skeptic review]

It begins in 1939, with Bertrand Russell the pacifist speaking before an academic audience in America and comparing America’s prospective participation in WWII to being “your brother’s keeper.”

The story then leaps back to the previous century, when young Bertie was introduced to the forbidden fruit of books and learning by his famous grandfather Lord John. [Autobiography]

Eventually Bertie declares his intent to seek reality through science, logic, and mathematics. The discovery that math is sometimes circular and always reliant on unproven axioms gave him his project, to articulate a transparently self-justifying logical language.

For that he drew inspiration from, of all possible predecessors, Leibniz. The wildly-speculative rationalist metaphysician did indeed possess an impressive mathematical/logical side, which he– unlike Russell– did not consider it necessary always to display.

“We shall not know” would not suffice for Bertie Russell.

Neither would it for the intense young Austrian he’ll soon be meeting, or for his colleague & collaborator Alfred North Whitehead.

But this is young Bertie we’re talking about, not the wizened grand old man who would eventually extol the value of philosophy as its very cultivation and celebration of uncertainty. Nor is this the author of Mysticism and Logic who insists that the best philosophers seek a rounded worldview and an approach to wisdom that excludes no portals of insight. The mature Russell was a naturalist (“I  believe we are a part of nature”) and humanist, no longer on certainty’s trail. But he was clear on what he believed. In 1925 he wrote:

I believe that when I die I shall rot, and nothing of my ego will survive. I am not young and I love life. But I should scorn to shiver with terror at the thought of annihilation. Happiness is nonetheless true happiness because it must come to an end, nor do thought and love lose their value because they are not everlasting. Many a man has borne himself proudly on the scaffold; surely the same pride should teach us to think truly about man’s place in the world. Even if the open windows of science at first make us shiver after the cosy indoor warmth of traditional humanizing myths, in the end the fresh air brings vigour, and the great spaces have a splendour of their own.


P.S. It’s rare to flip on the radio in America and hear an excited conversation about a centuries-dead philosopher, but they were talking about Montaigne– the anti-certainty philosopher– on “On Point” recently. His new biographer Sarah Bakewell tells his story in 20 questions. For example:

How to live? A. Don’t worry about death; Pay attention; Question everything; Reflect on everything; regret nothing; be ordinary and imperfect; Let life be its own answer

For some of us, that’s a good answer to Wittgenstein and young Russell too. Admit your uncertainty, and feel free to speak.

Heroes & villainsno man’s landvalue of philConquest of Happinessaction herobdayfresh seedOpinionator blogWhy I Am Not a ChristianUnpopular EssaysMonk bioMysticism & Logic… more Russell online

“The world is everything that is the case.” And then some.

April 14, 2011

The practical, non-ideological, “pragmatic” sensibility of traditional (“classic”) American philosophy has little use for inherited doctrinaire ideas. Its focus is always on what will come of what we’re doing, and how we can do it better next time.

And that’s why the American pragmatic movement threw off the puritan shackles of Jonathan Edwards. If you’ve already decided that you’re a fallen wretch unworthy of redemption, you’ll be less likely to go boldly and experimentally into an unlit but open and beckoning future. (This is part of what James meant when he said he personally rejected “vicarious salvation” and preferred a “continuously evolutionary” approach.)

We’re a young nation so we’ve not had that many original thinkers yet. Our thinkers have tended to be doers, like Franklin and Jefferson. Pragmatists think that’s a good thing. But the American public at large has tended routinely to reject philosophy and the life of the mind. Anti-intellectualism, Richard Hofstadter called it.

More recently Susan Jacoby has noted the prevalence of “unreason” and “junk thought” in our civic discourse, rooted fundamentally in a disinterest in proportioning belief to supportive evidence. Maybe we can still hope to grow out of that. Not quickly enough, though,  if you’ve been following the deliberations of our elected representatives lately in Washington, Madison, Nashville… [“Dumb and Dumber: Are Americans Hostile to Knowledge?“]

Thoreau was an intellectual, but he was also an “anarchist” who earned his stripes as an inspirational contrarian individualist. Emerson is widely quoted (“build a better mousetrap” etc.) but little recognized amongst those who quote him most as an authentic American intellectual. He defies easy labeling (as should we all), but it would be a stretch to call him non-metaphysical. What makes him a founding father of American philosophy is his emphasis on Nature and Experience, and of course on Self-reliance.

Beliefs ought to be actionable, said Peirce, without quite clarifying what counts as “action”. He was pretty clear, though, about Cartesian-style meditation not measuring up.

His old classmate James was more liberal about that, saying beliefs pass the action test when they put us into satisfactory relations with other parts of our experience. But what works for you may not work for me, and that’s ok: that’s pluralism, and it’s the perfect philosophy for a melting pot society like ours. (Pluralism is not quite the same thing as radical empiricism, but they’re definitely related.)

Dewey was an “evangelical” Hegelian, until he concluded that Hegel’s ideas were too abstract. In the name of concreteness Dewey set up an experimental school. He was all about “hands on” experimental philosophy, and (as noted last time) about the “influence of Darwinism on philosophy.”

Freud‘s philosophical credentials are challenged by some, but he expressed a forceful alternative to Cartesian rationalism and said we don’t know ourselves or our minds well at all. He liked to ponder the symbolism of cigars, too.

St. Louis Hegelians.” I’m from St. Louis, and the only Hegelians I encountered there were down in Columbia at Michael’s Pub. They weren’t all that deep, but at least one of them thought he was free and tried to give us a demonstration. A very predictable demonstration, in retrospect. Didn’t know what to make of it at the time, though. And that’s really the thing about freedom, isn’t it? It’s hard to fathom, when it’s happening, and impossible to prove. Can’t live with it, can’t live without it.

But again, it was a different story back in the day. Even Dewey was a member of the tribe, though he was no midwesterner.

And now for something completely different in philosophy, at least in tone and point of origin:

Gottlob Frege said philosophy had been putting Descartes before the horse all these years, as it were, by asking what we could know for certain, and how we could know it, without first clarifying the logical nature and status of our knowledge tools. Hence, his focus on the twinned roots of math and logic and his quest for a perspicuous language free of the imprecision of ordinary words. They’re ambiguous, their “sense” is sometimes hidden in the minds of speakers. Tighter analysis should lay bare their referential meaning, finally making reality reveal her secrets.

Bertrand Russell and Alfred North Whitehead (who said William James was America’s Plato) wanted to “tidy up” math , but were stymied by Cantor‘s unfinished set theory and Godel‘s incompleteness theorem.

Whitehead, the “process philosopher” who thought too highly of Platonic, eternal ideals but who made compensatory sense by shifting to talk of events coming into being through patternsinstead of eternal, unchanging objects as most real. Nature itself is continuously creative, novel, imaginative so philosophy should be correspondingly and poetically flexible.

Enter Ludwig Wittgenstein, the Vienna Circle, logical positivism and atomism and logicism… and eventually the resurgence of ordinary language.

Wittgenstein (part I) modestly claimed to have “solved all the problems of philosophy,” in his terse and cryptic Tractatus. He was the Joe Friday of philosophy (“Just the facts, M’am”). Every picture tells a story.

Wittgenstein II, to return later (Phil Investigations) in the guise of therapist, is to me the more compelling figure. He apparently materialized while Wittgenstein the temporarily- ex-philosopher was busy doing other things including, to his credit, still philosophizing. [Bio & phil]

“The world is everything that is the case,” begins his portentous(pretentious?) Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.On young Wittgenstein’s view, our words should aim to picture the world structurally and isomorphically. What we can’t faithfully replicate of the world in words or their logical surrogates, we should shut up about. “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” He really thought he’d said it all, that is, all that could be meaningfully said. So he stopped philosophizing in public, for quite some time. But he didn’t stop thinking. Wittgenstein II would re-surface years later with the posthumous Philosophical Investigations.

He was not really separated at birth from Lyle Lovett.  But my old Vandy Prof Michael Hodges did report that (although he was not from Texas, “that’s right”) he loved American western films. He may have been a Frank Capra fan, too: his last words, in 1951, were “tell them I’ve had a wonderful life.”

Carnap and the Vienna Circle Positivists said all philosophical problems are really about the syntactical structure of language, not about ultimate meaning or Reason or Truth. They despised Hegel, who was not careful with his syntax at all. Ver-i-fy, they insisted. Fal-si-fyKarl Popper rejoindered. And with that, an infamous and potentially violent little confrontation was drawn. Wittgenstein’s Poker gives the odd escapade more ink than it’s due, but on the other hand it’s good (if also a bit preposterous) to see philosophers being so passionate about their ideas.


Next week, STUDENTS: Logicomix, two chapters per class. (This is what I mean by “intellectual biography,” for those pursuing that option for your final report. But I won’t hold you to high standards of graphic art. Or even low standards. Just write some good words. If you’re doing a presentation instead, be ready on Thursday.)

“Our contract with Gaia is not about human rights alone”

April 4, 2011

In chapter 3 of Vanishing Face of Gaia, James Lovelock calls efforts to stabilize CO2 and global temperature “no better than planetary alternative medicine.” He’s clearly no fan of alt-med. Lots of Gaians are, though, like our indigenous authors. How about it, class? Can a true Gaian be dismissive or contemptuous of holistic health in any form? [My favorite alt-med health care provider]

He reminds us that as oxygen-breathers, we and our domesticated pets contribute substantially to the world’s net supply of green house gases. Thank goodness we don’t have “great and powerful” leaders eager to fix that through subtraction. Or, don’t have more of them than we do.

Michael Shermer’s thoughts about false positives and negatives, and why people believe weird things, ring true enough. The former  are mostly harmless, while the latter can get you killed. Climate denialism might be the very best example. (“How Anecdotal Evidence Can Undermine Scientific Results“)

But, just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean somebody’s not after you, and just because the mobile phone menace was suspected long before evidence could be produced doesn’t prove that it’s a phantom.

It’s our duty as a species to survive, so we may be obliged to pick up stakes and seek cooler climes. Will Gaia help us move? Lovelock says again and again that Gaia’s needs, expressing the interests of the many, outweigh those of the few. Guess which group we’re in?

Last time’s post touched on this: Lovelock has been accused of being a sentimentalizing anthropomorphizer, even after he clarified Gaia’s status as more metaphor than literal fact. And he is one, I think: he’s soft and sentimental for the non-human biosphere, more than for you and me. But he asks a fair question: if she’s not alive, how can she die? “And die she will when the sun’s heat becomes more than can be withstood.” OK, but I think we should revisit Dr. Flicker & Prof. Russell.

What alternative energy form has the best chance of helping offset climate change? Wind doesn’t blow in enough places, solar’s not yet scalable (not sure what that means). As of the writing of this book, Lovelock liked nukes. As for radiation? It’s “a natural and normal part of our environment.”

Right. That’s hollow reassurance these days, isn’t it? Did you hear “This American Life” last night? We owe it to ourselves and to Gaia to listen to those voices from Chernobyl.

Interesting Kuhnian point about scientists being “reticent” in the face of possible peer pressure and scorn, and about the old urban/wilderness schism within environmentalism. Maybe we just need to “queer” the old deal. (“HT Queer Ecology and the Environmental Movement“)

Not sure about his Silent Spring observation, though I guess it’s consistent of him to be unperturbed by free-range chemicals if he’s also down with radiation. Are we really being “hysterical” about the latest Japan crisis?

Did you notice, BP’s trying to drill in the same deep troubled Caribbean waters again. They apparently think nothing’s unseemly about that, less than a year after their own malodorous contribution to hysteria. It seems to me we’re collectively being pretty docile, not hysterical. End of the world? We feel fine.

“Coal is the truly dirty fuel.” And yet, Lovelock finds Mr. Rogers of Big Coal “as concerned with our future as I was.” Well, as long as the dirty energy guys are “concerned”…

How concerned should we all be?

Now, as a result of the crisis in Japan, the atomic simulations suggest that the number of serious accidents has suddenly doubled, with three of the reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi complex in some stage of meltdown. Even so, the public authorities have sought to avoid grim technical details that might trigger alarm or even panic.

“They don’t want to go there,” said Robert Alvarez, a nuclear expert who, from 1993 to 1999, was a policy adviser to the secretary of energy. “The spin is all about reassurance.” NYT

“Assessing the Radiation Danger” graphic

“Our nuclear plants are like snowflakes, they’re all different and they can all melt.” Atlantic

As the disaster in Japan illustrates, so starkly and so tragically, people have a hard time planning for events that they don’t want to imagine happening. But these are precisely the events that must be taken into account in a realistic assessment of risk. We’ve more or less pretended that our nuclear plants are safe, and so far we have got away with it. The Japanese have not. Elizabeth Kolbert

[Rousseau, Snow’s two cultures 50th anniversary, food, walking, Geoengineering, Gaian engineering]

Chapter Five concludes smartly:

Perhaps the greatest value of the Gaia concept lies in its metaphor of a living Earth, which reminds us that we are part of it and that our contract with Gaia is not about human rights alone, but includes human obligations.

That, at least, sounds a lot like native wisdom. Now we just have to figure out how to apply it. What kind of energy do we need? How much? How quickly?