Tuesday, March 27, 2007

A Challenge for our Time: Would You Rather Die Than Think?

Many people would rather die than think; in fact, most do.

-Bertrand Russell
Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) wrote extensively and profoundly throughout his long lifetime. He won the Nobel prize for literature for his History of Western Philosophy and co-authored the Principia Mathematica with Alfred North Whitehead.

Two essays, however, are among his monumental contributions; they are must reads for lay people and non-professional philosophers today. One is entitled Ideas That Have Harmed Mankind and the other --Ideas That Have Helped Mankind. Despite his frail appearance, Russell was of the "tough minded" school of philosophy and, in that respect, had more in common with Jean-Paul Sartre than he would ever admit. In this short audio file, Russell states succinctly the stark choice that we faced in 1950 and still face today.

In his Autobiography, Russell wrote a fitting prologue for his work:
Three passions, simple but overwhelmingly strong, have governed my life: the longing for love, the search for knowledge, and unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind. These passions, like great winds, have blown me hither and thither, in a wayward course, over a great ocean of anguish, reaching to the very verge of despair.
Later, we find the source of that despair:
Communists, Fascists, and Nazis have successfully challenged all that I thought good, and in defeating them much of what their opponents have sought to preserve is being lost. Freedom has come to be thought weakness, and tolerance has been compelled to wear the garb of treachery.

-Bertrand Russell,Autobiography

Though much of Russell's lasting contribution to world culture rests upon his achievements in pure logic, he was primarily a humanist and a humanitarian. Social activism and politics "ran in the family". He not only wrote about the social issues of his day, he actively tried to influence the tide of history.

Russell was not content to write for academia and other philosophers. He reached a wider public with The Problems of Philosophy (1912) and A History of Western Philosophy (1945). Both books did much to educate several generations -including mine. Russell did not arbitrarily separate education from the pressing issues of the day; rather, he linked progress in education with social progress in general. He is famous for debunking fallacy, propaganda, and, most memorably, superstition and religion. He believed widespread superstition has unwelcome social consequences.

It is tragic that American society did not take to heart Russell`s simple admonition:
I wish to propose for the reader's favourable consideration a doctrine which may, I fear, appear wildly paradoxical and subversive. The doctrine in question is this: that it is undesirable to believe a proposition when there is no ground whatever for supposing it true.
That simple doctrine might have replaced political ideologies of all sorts in America. The tragic regime of George W. Bush might have been avoided. We might have avoided the catastrophe that was Ronald Reagan.

It is easy to understand the rise of Reagan. The GOP faithful would say: "He made us feel good about ourselves". It was an era in which the rapacious greedy felt good about economic plunder. "Greed was good" became a motto. Reagan made it possible for republicans to sleep well at night even as "trickle down" economics was known to displace millions by exporting the very heart of America`s "heavy industry". Perhaps some people ought not feel good about themselves. Some ought not sleep so easily at night.

It is a mistake to think that Russell died a disappointed man because the world had not and could not live up to his hopes. Had he foreseen recent developments in modern America he might have. No! Though easily depicted as a "disembodied intellect", Russell was made of sterner stuff.
This has been my life. I have found it worth living, and would gladly live it again if the chance were offered me.

-Prologue to Bertrand Russell's Autobiography
Russell, though a logician who wrote disparagingly of Sartre's Existentialism which he considered to be almost incomprehensible, Russell was himself, in the finest existentialist tradition, the architect of his own life. Thus, he was himself an "Existentialist" --if not a cowboy.

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10 comments:

Anonymous said...

I had two responses to your blog, the immediate one was: Russell, an existentialist? You gotta be smoking pot.

But anyways, Sartre and Russell did get along swell, politically if not philosophically. Sartre was president of the Russell Tribunal.

Anonymous said...

I second the above! Russell was a Logical Positivist and diehard Socialist. Sartre was a communist.

It seems the minds of some philosophers are over-rational, assuming Oakeshott's great abomination of Rationalism (always with a capital R and with the emphasis on the ism), the dominant force, as he saw it, in Western politics since the Enlightenment, and the source of every collectivist attempt to build utopia by reasoning on the basis of "felt needs."

How existentialists could adopt a collectivist stamp has always been oddly discordant with the very principles of existentialism. Russell's Fabianism is holding to the "rational planning" that Socialism thinks it achieves. Why have choices, when the social engineers will determine the "best" for the rest of us. But denying choices, such as a command economy produces, in favor a planned economy, such as Satre favors, is contradictory to choices and freedom.

When someone persuades me that existentialism and planned economies are NOT opposites, I'll indulge ideology. Since that is highly improbable, I'll stay with a spontaneous commmand economy to maximize freedom.

Fuzzflash said...

Bronowski FEELS it:

"We have to cure ourselves of the itch for absolute knowledge and power. We have to close the distance between the push-button order and the human act".

We have to TOUCH people."

Russell STATES it:

"Many people would rather die than THINK; in fact, most do."

On the album "Thick As A Brick", Ian Anderson, singer/songwriter/musician of Jethro Tull SYNTHESIZES it:

"I may make you FEEL,
but I can't make you THINK..."

Here, on our existentialist porch we're lucky to be able to do both simultaneously. Good on yer, Len.

Len Hart said...

I had two responses to your blog, the immediate one was: Russell, an existentialist? You gotta be smoking pot.

Read it again. An existentialist is what an existentialist does.

As I stated, Russell himself found "Existentialism" incomprehensible. Yet, Russell's statement -- This has been my life. I have found it worth living, and would gladly live it again if the chance were offered me -- is the statement of a man who takes full responsibility for his life. A man is what a man does.

Compare what Russell, in fact, purposefully did with his life with Sartre's statement: "A man is nothing else but what he makes of himself."

I second the above! Russell was a Logical Positivist and diehard Socialist. Sartre was a communist.

Mere labels. More apples and oranges. Logical positivism is a philosophy of science and is, in no way, incompatible with existentialism except, perhaps, in the temperaments of individuals philosophers. And what difference would that make, in any case?

Both Russell and Sartre would have agreed that just as sub atomic particles ARE what they do, so too individuals.

Moreover, the essence of existentialsim is precisely that of Logical Positivism and that is: existence precedes essence. That is why the Ontological Argument for the existence of God is fallacious. God cannot be defined until it is known, empiracally, that He exists. Likewise, with Existentialism, man, by existing, is free to define himself. Rousseau had despaired that man is born free but everywhere in chains. An existentialist, Victor Frankl, turned that on its head. Mankind's first freedom, he wrote in "Man's Search for Meaning" is the freedom to choose his own attitude.

How existentialists could adopt a collectivist stamp has always been oddly discordant with the very principles of existentialism.

Labels again. Some existentialists may have been collectivists". Others were not. So what? There is absolutely nothing in "existentialism" that logically compels collectivism. For that matter, one can be an existentialist and espouse Lassaiz-Faire capitalism. Existentialism is, in its purest form, a philosophy of individual responsibity and was so before the term "existentialism" was even coined.

When someone persuades me that existentialism and planned economies are NOT opposites, ...

That some "existentialists" may have had leftist leanings is coincidental. Read "Being and Nothingness" and "Existentialism and Human Emotions".

Moreover, existentialism and logical positivism are not incompatible. You compare apples with oranges. First of all, existentialism addresses the human condition from a subjective perspective. Modern positivism, i.e. Logical Positivism, is a philosophy of science. A.J. Ayer, for exampla, does not address the human condition as does Sartre in "Existentialism and Human Emotions". Ayer simply attempts to define meaning in objective terms. It is a philosophy of science. Read A.J. Ayer: "Language, Truth and Logic". In the end, however, Ayer most certainly failed to avoid an infinite regress in his famous *meaning of meaning". It was Wittgenstein who had declared positvism could not avoid an infinite regress.

Finally, there is no ideology in my essay.

Len Hart said...

"I may make you FEEL,
but I can't make you THINK..."

Here, on our existentialist porch we're lucky to be able to do both simultaneously. Good on yer, Len.


Fuzzflash, your selection of quotes from recent articles reveals a pattern that even I had not noticed. Again...your posts raise discourse to a new level. Thanks, my friend.

Anonymous said...

Len, I agree there is no ideology in your essay, but no truth either. If you don't know that Wittgenstein, Whitehead, and Russell founded Logical Positivism, to which Ayer, Carnap, etc. subsequently joined, you need an introductory course in the history of philosophy.

Logical positivism is NOT a philosophy of science. It holds that individual sentences gain their meaning by some specification of the actual steps we take for determining the truth or falsity. Thus, empirical verification of sentences into T/F choices. Yes, Karl Popper, the preeminent philosopher of science, like Hayek, hailed from the Vienna Circle (from which the Positivist departed).

"Labels?" You mean like Shirt Labels? You mean "names," don't you? Or is this your own private language? Nominalism "names," essentialism "defines." Existentialism "names," Positvists also "name," and analyze "logically empirical" statements (which it renders T/F based on sense experience, not metaphysical propositions). Empirical verification of logical statements is NOT science or the scientific method.

Collectivism is one hell of a "label" or more accurately "name." It picks-out the Lenins, Stalins, Maos, Pol Pots, Fidel's, and all other rationalist social planners of the most tyrannical kind imposing their wills on others. Perhaps tyrany is another one of your "labels," but those who existentially experience it definitely find it most disagreeable. Socialism, or Fabianism, is a less-tyranical collectivism, in that the people chose their planners to choose for them, thus surrendering choices to others by a single choice. That is hardly an existentialist's dream, which is why Sarte's communism and Russell's socialism would never appeal to a true existentialist, or haven't you encountered Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Jaspers, et alia, whose existentialism is consistent, unlike Satre's? Sarte was just a French psuedo-intellectual radical, abusing language, life, power, and whatever else radicals abuse.

Anonymous said...

Your assessment of Ronald Reagan is both superficial and erroneous. I suggest you consult Professor John Patrick Diggins of City University of New York Graduate Center book Ronald Reagan: Fate, Freedom, and the Making of History (Norton).

As for existentialism, perhaps you need to read some real existential thinkers, rather than think your notions are existentialist. May I suggest Robert Solomon, particularly his Joy of Philosophy: Thinking This versus the Passionate Life (Oxford). He has written and edited many books on the subject, and he hails from the University of Texas, Austin. He and I agree that Sarte's Existentialism and Human Emotions is his only consistent existential work, but it's short, so he stayed on message, rather than babbled in incoherencies (e.g., Being and Nothingness, which drips with all sorts of ideologies (Freud, Marx, etc), assuming one can make sense of its inconsistencies.

N.B. Existentialism is not a license to be irrational, just a preference for "existential particulars preceding essential metaphysics." Sartre's lover Beauvoir's inapt phrase alas still admits of essentialist metaphysics, which is where ideologies hail from. An existentialist would admit no such thing.

Len Hart said...

Logical positivism is NOT a philosophy of science. It holds that individual sentences gain their meaning by some specification of the actual steps we take for determining the truth or falsity.

Logical Positivism is, indeed, a philosophy of science. Your characterization is a clumsy and inadequate description of Ayer's verifibility theory of meaning found in "Language, Truth and Logic". Try "doing science" without "signficant" statements, i.e. statements capable of being verified! Frankly, gay, you have, at last, revealed that you don't know what you're talking about. Bertolt Brecht said: "A man who does not the truth is just an idiot but a man who knows the truth and calls it a lie is a crook." Which one are you?

Your assessment of Ronald Reagan is both superficial and erroneous.

Not surprisingly, you are dead wrong again. I have written extensively about Reagan whom I met personally. You base your sweeping overgeneralization on a single paragraph about which you are wrong.

As for existentialism, perhaps you need to read some real existential thinkers, rather than think your notions are existentialist.


I hesitate to ask what you consider real. Are not Sartre, Frankl, Camus "real" existentialists? If not, please tell their heirs and relatives. Moreover, my notions define themselves and your notions about them are clearly wrong and ignorant. If my notions are "existentialist" they are "existentialist" if not, not. So what? They define themselves. Accurately, they are of a category that I call "my notions". Writing them down is why I blog. Existence precedes essence.

He and I agree that Sarte's Existentialism and Human Emotions is his only consistent existential work, but it's short, so he stayed on message, rather than babbled in incoherencies (e.g., Being and Nothingness, which drips with all sorts of ideologies (Freud, Marx, etc), assuming one can make sense of its inconsistencies.

Name a single "Sartrean" inconsistency that I have espoused. Just one.

The "length" of Sartre's "Existentialism and Human Emotions" is irrelevant.

N.B. Existentialism is not a license to be irrational, just a preference for "existential particulars preceding essential metaphysics." Sartre's lover Beauvoir's inapt phrase alas still admits of essentialist metaphysics, which is where ideologies hail from. An existentialist would admit no such thing.

Having demonstrated that you haven't a clue with regard to either positivism or existentialism, you are in no position to decree what an existentialist might or might not choose to say. But, I suppose that you think Milton Friedman an existentialist because he wrote a book called "Free to Choose".

Len Hart said...

At last, there is some doubt about whether Bertrand Russell can be credibly classified a "logical positivist".

I am inclined to think not.

Clearly, Russell was never a member of the "Vienna Circle" --most often associated with "logical positivism".

Logical Postivism is most certainly a philosophy of science. "Doing science" is at the very heart of Logical Positivism, a doctrine for which scientific knowledge is the only "factual knowledge".

For members of the "Vienna Circle" (of which Russell was NOT a member) traditional metaphysics is rejected as meaningless. In that regard, Logical Positivists differed from earlier empiricists and positivists like David Hume or John Locke.

Ayer, indeed, the Vienna Circle, maintained that human knowledge relies utterly upon public, experimental verification --i.e. science. There is NO science of the particular. Logical Positivism, moreover, differs from earlier "positivists" like Auguste Comte and J.S. Mill who held that metaphysical doctrines are false. The Logical Positivists --most notably Ayer --make the claim that "metaphysics " is not necessarily false but, rather, meaningless.

Indeed, Ayer, in "Language, Truth and Logic" is concerned with the process by which "significant" statements may be verified. He defined meaning itself. Wittgenstein, a member of the Vienna Circle, at last, came to the conclusion that such a theory of meaning always lapses into an unacceptable and infinite regress. He may have been right. Arguably, even Ayer may have been hard pressed to define his meaning of meaning. And, then of course, there is the meaning of the meaning of meaning and then the meaning of that.

For a good description of infinite regress, see Rudy Rucker's Infinity and the Mind: The Science and Philosophy of the Infinite .

If Wittgenstein is correct about Logical Positivism, then even Ayer's "meaning of meaning" becomes metaphysics. Should that be the case, then all that is left us is "choice". Consciously or no, we are all existentialists.

Len Hart said...

I rather think I was too kind to Reagan. I have enough notes to fill several books. In the meantime, I will be content to quote the conclusion of Lawrence Walsh, the special prosecutor who investigated the Iran/Contra scandal in which designated enemies of the US were armed and supported by Ronald Reagan and his gang of crooks. Reagan got away with it as the Special Prosecutor, Lawrence Walsh makes clear:

he underlying facts of Iran/contra are that, regardless of criminality, President Reagan, the secretary of state, the secretary of defense, and the director of central intelligence and their necessary assistants committed themselves, however reluctantly, to two programs contrary to congressional policy and contrary to national policy. They skirted the law, some of them broke the law, and almost all of them tried to cover up the President's willful activities.

--FINAL REPORT OF THE
INDEPENDENT COUNSEL FOR
IRAN/CONTRA MATTERS