Sunday, May 9, 2010

Books: The History of Western Philosophy, by Bertrand Russell

In writing about Russell’s tome, it is not my place to address individually the thoughts of the philosophers whom he discusses. Instead, my goal is only to assess the degree of success the author achieves in his own assessment of these figures and their works, as well as to comment on some of the thoughts that the reading of this book inspired in me.

If those two sentences feel extremely lucid, logical, and measured, it is because I have spent the past month steeped in the style of the greatest academic writer I have ever encountered. Typically, the prospect of reading 750 pages of what appears to be something not unlike a textbook would be rather daunting, but Russell writes with such grace and wit that the book is a pleasure. In fact, I find myself wishing that he had written a companion volume—the History of Eastern Philosophy—as well as a History of Western Art, a History of Western Economics, a History of Western Music, et cetera ad infinitum. Ideally, I would like to learn the history of the whole wide world, according to Bertrand Russell.

He’s not perfect—in the chapters on Plato, for example, he very uncharacteristically shuttles back and forth between describing Plato’s understanding of both “God” and “the gods,” without ever clarifying what that difference means, and whether Plato is the first monotheist in western philosophy’s trajectory. Furthermore, he leaves out one of my favorite philosophers—Søren Kierkegård—but includes other thinkers (e.g. Byron) who were not, technically, philosophers—though he does make a strong argument for such inclusions. But, considering the scope of the task, he is near enough.

Not having read many of his primary sources myself, I cannot say whether the strong focus on metaphysics (as opposed, for example, to ethics, which, though it is in some cases discussed, does not receive equal attention, though a pragmatist like myself would deem it far more important) belies a personal penchant of the author, or derives purely from the primary interests of the philosophers whom he discusses. I can say that, after a cursory examination, philosophers, on the whole, have quite absurd metaphysical tendencies. I could not, in fact, bring myself to agree with the comprehensive propositions—metaphysical, ethical, or otherwise—of any philosopher discussed until I reached the section on Locke. I was quite taken by Locke’s measured relativism (which I found to be not unlike Russell’s own), and even copied out a quotation which would have been good reading for President Bush (W.) on the eve of his Iraq invasion.* But, as the chapter moved on to illustrate Locke’s metaphysics, I was again stymied.

When I was a small child, I used to ask my father, a scientist and an atheist, where people came from. My curiosity was no doubt due in part to what I was learning in kindergarten at my Catholic school. This question of mine would lead us, always, through a long chain of technically unsound but generally meaningful evolutionary derivations. “People came from chimpanzees.” “Where did chimpanzees come from?” “Chimps came from smaller primates, like monkeys.” “Where did monkeys come from?” “Monkeys came from smaller mammals,” and so on, through sea creatures, and invertebrates, and single-celled organisms. The last two questions were always the same: “Where did the single-cell organism come from?” “Energy.” “Where did energy come from?” “It was always there.”

It was always there. So, I would say to him, there is God, he’s just energy; but my dad would shake his head and tell me no, energy in its pure state is not cohesive, it’s not a being, and it hasn’t the will of the thing that people call “God.” For a time, I believed what I was taught in school—that there was God, a god who had created me intentionally because of his love for me, individually, and that he had a plan for me, which he would reveal to me, when I was older. Later, I looked at the world, with its panoply of religions and ethical structures, its countries, its economies, its starving masses; I looked at the sky with its billions of stars and felt how small even the starving masses are, relative to the scope of the universe, and I condemned my earlier beliefs as naïve, the product of my tendency to passively accept information provided by authority figures. Anyway, what had been there at the beginning, be it energy or otherwise, ceased to matter. In fact, nothing mattered. I don’t mean that in the depressive’s sense. I simply mean that, ultimately, when considered against the scale of the universe, and the necessary infinitude of space and time, our lives here on Earth, in fact the existence of the entire planet itself, were random and meaningless. Though this thinking terribly depressed my mother, I, having read the portions of Nietzsche in which God is proclaimed dead, thus freeing all men to become gods themselves, found it rather liberating.

Russell divides his History into three sections: the Greeks, the Christians, and the Moderns. I tried, throughout the first two thirds of the book, and even half of the final third, to understand the various thinkers’ metaphysics, be the world comprised of something as simple as fire or as esoteric as windowless monads. In discussing this with Aldo, we became engaged in a conversation about quantum physics (which has always hurt my brain, and which I’ve never liked), including Schrödinger's cat (which I refuse to accept, for the cat knows whether the cat is alive or dead, and it matters to the cat), and the proposition that, in a vacuum containing only a single electron, that electron could be measured as simultaneously inhabiting more than one position (which I also refuse to accept, although I accept that there is a possibility for that electron to inhabit more than one position, and that, as additional electrons are introduced into the vacuum, that range of possibilities decreases. Frankly, even if an electron does inhabit multiple positions simultaneously in a vacuum, it does not matter to me, because we do not live in a vacuum; thus, metaphysically speaking, the point seems to me moot).

Having had this conversation the night before, now sitting alone in our friend’s living room in the dying light of day, pondering the infinitude of space and time, I had a momentary lapse of reason. Everything is made out of electrons. As if I had smoked some drug that I have never smoked, this suddenly concerned me greatly. Why? I asked myself. Why are there electrons? I found this extremely disconcerting and, to the best of my understanding of the term, tripped for about ten minutes or so as the room went from orange to blood red to dark purple to black with the setting sun. Somehow, I was able to pull myself out of this upon realizing that electrons don’t actually exist per se, but only as a way that we measure energy. And I had long ago accepted that “Energy was always there,” after all, the Law of Conservation of Energy states that Energy cannot be created nor destroyed, only changed from one form to another. And, since energy exists now, and it cannot be created, it was always there, Q.E.D.

Furthermore, I decided that, yes, at a most basic level, I am made of nothing but energy, and that the curtain hanging against that window, too, is made of nothing but energy. Metaphysically speaking, then, it makes no difference whether I spend the remainder of my life sitting on a couch, eating KFC from a cardboard bucket, and watching marathons of MTV’s The Real World on television, or instead move to Malawi to teach HIV-positive women and orphans organic farming. But this is absurd. Ethically, I know that there is a difference. Therefore, I can throw all Metaphysics out the window, for its truths are truths inapplicable to the scale of our world, our society, our lives. What matters is ethics—how do we know what we should do? For too long, people have tried to determine their ethics based on metaphysics (this is the mode of religion). A truly relevant and efficacious ethical system is based on a smaller scale: be there a God or gods, ideal ideas or things-in-themselves, our actions have consequences here and now that are far more relevant. This is my thinking, not Bertrand Russell’s, but I think that he would approve. I think that John Locke would approve as well.

*"We should do well to commiserate our mutual ignorance, and endeavour to remove it in all the gentle and fair ways of information, and not instantly treat others ill as obstinate and perverse because they will not renounce their own and receive our opinions, or at least those we would force upon them, when it is more than probable that we are no less obstinate in not embracing some of theirs. For where is the man that has uncontestable evidence of the truth of all that he holds, or of the falsehood of all he condemns; or can say, that he has examined to the bottom all his own or other men's opinions? The necessity of believing without knowledge, nay often upon very slight grounds, in this fleeting state of action and blindness we are in, should make us more busy and careful to inform ourselves than to restrain others. . . . There is reason to think, that if men were better instructed themselves, they would be less imposing on others." John Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Book IV, Chapter XVI, Section 4, as quoted in Russell, page 555.

Clearly having taken this to heart, Russell writes, "In studying a philosopher, the right attitude is neither reverence nor contempt, but first a kind of hypothetical sympathy, until it is possible to know what it feels like to believe in his theories, and only then a revival of the critical attitude, which should resemble, as far as possible, the state of mind of a person abandoning opinions which he has hitherto held" (47). I would like to think we could substitute "studying a philosopher" with "negotiating with another party," and give this wisdom to the leaders of parties (from local to international) in conflict. In fact, as Russell concludes, writing in 1946, "To frame a philosophy capable of coping with men intoxicated with the prospect of almost unlimited power and also with the apathy of the powerless is the most pressing task of our time" (660). How prescient was this man! But who will take up this task?

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