Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Bertrand Russell on the Philosopher's Temperament

The curmudgeonly essays Bertrand Russell wrote late in life generally get little attention from philosophers -- strikingly little, really, given that he was such a famous philosopher. For example, in the (admittedly limited) ISI Web of Knowledge citation database, I see only nine citations since 2000 of Russell's book Unpopular Essays, and none in mainstream philosophy journals.

I, however, am enjoying the essays, at least in my present also somewhat curmudgeonly mood -- though they do sometimes display the intellectual laziness common to grand old men who know they won't have to fight their way through unsympathetic referees to find print. (Hm, come to think of it, blogs are a little like that, too!)

One passage that particularly struck me, given my growing interest in the psychology of philosophy, was this:

Philosophy has been defined as "an unusually obstinate attempt to think clearly"; I should define it rather an "an unusually ingenious attempt to think fallaciously". The philosopher's temperament is rare, because it has to combine two somewhat conflicting characteristics: on the one hand a strong desire to believe some general proposition about the universe or human life; on the other hand, inability to believe contentedly except on what appear to be intellectual grounds. The more profound the philosopher, the more intricate and subtle must his fallacies be in order to produce in him the desired state of intellectual acquiescence. That is why philosophy is obscure.
Russell illustrates this point very plausibly with the Descartes of the later Meditations, where Descartes attempts to reason his way out of his skeptical quandary by proving the existence of God. Russell also offers Berkeley, Kant, and Hegel as examples, though Russell's treatment of the latter two especially will strike any sympathetic historian of philosophy as irritatingly simplistic. Being myself generally an unsympathetic historian of philosophy, though, I wonder if Russell hasn't simply cut through the bullshit and seen the core. Here he is on Hegel:
Hegel's system satisfied the instincts of philosophers more fully than any of its predecessors. It was so obscure that no amateurs could hope to understand it. It was optimistic, since history is a progress in the unfolding of the Absolute Idea. It showed that the philosopher, sitting in his study considering abstract ideas, can know more about the real world than the statesman or the historian or the man of science.
Given that our attraction to or revulsion from philosophical ideas tends to far precede our understanding of the subtle arguments pro and con (as I discussed a bit here), I suspect Russell is correct that such psychological considerations are a major factor driving both individual philosophers and the discipline as a whole, despite our flattering self-image.

This also makes me wonder whether Russell's late-in-life History of Western Philosophy has more to it than historians generally give it credit for.

11 comments:

Hallq said...

I share your love of Unpopular Essays and other similar works, but I'm curious what you think mainstream philosophy journals might say about them. I venture that any philosopher who tried to publish a journal article referring to the essays would be at great risk of embarrassing himself, by drawing attention to the gap between Russell's masterful prose and the boring stuff produced by most academics.

Neil said...

I'm sceptical of the relevance of Russell's observation today - at least without some heavy qulification. Philosophy today isn't the broad and systematic enterprise it was in the past, and whether or not philosophers philosophers are committed to some big "general proposition about the universe", this big proposition does little work in driving their work. Of course, we (like everyone else) are in the grip of the confirmation bias and so on, but not in the service of a big idea. I suspect the temperament of the average philosopher today is more like that of scientist in normal science: driven more by a love of puzzle solving than by commitment to a big idea.

Phaedrus said...

Russell raises the spectre of motivation, which is always the dark, seamy underside of any enterprise. Are there any pure motives? Is there such a thing as pure altruism? Russell, true to himself, is skeptical. So where does that leave him--and us--where the enterprise of philosophy is concerned?

To paraphrase a well-known quotation: Curmudgeonliness may not be a comfortable position, but naivite is a preposterous one.

For neil: I have always been impressed with Wittgenstein's notion that we all have a picture of the way the world works and that this picture both motivates our behavior and allows us to behave in certain ways. Philosophers try to bring this picture always into clearer focus, whether as a whole or part by part. (Most of the rest of us, I think, are content with diffuse margins and varying depths of perception.) I think the enterprise of philosophy tends to propel its proponents in the direction of an all-encompassing picture, regardless of which piece he or she may be working on at any particular time. The fact that the whole is not being considered all the time in contemporary philosophy merely makes its influence more insidious--at least, trickier to discern. Does philosophy suffer when the commitment to the big idea becomes a largely inchoate or even unconscious one?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the comments, folks!

Hallq: I suspect it's not so much that referees and editors of mainstream philosophy journals have anything specifically against Russell's late work -- well, a few may! -- if an author could show how it's relevant and interesting. As I near the end of the book, I'm thinking the latter might be a challenge, since so much of what Russell says is either standard, or simplistic, or not very carefully supported, or not well connected with the traditional concerns of philosophers.

I agree that his prose is delightful -- though it seems to me that there's sometimes a compromise between the beauty of one's prose and the precision with which one makes one's points. In James and Nietzsche, and in Russell and Hume at their best, sometimes there's no compromise at all, though, and the beautiful prose makes the point more clearly than staid prose would.

But in any case, the quality of their prose hasn't prevented people from citing James or Nietzsche or Hume.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Neil: When I initially conceived this post, I thought of making a point like the one you make about the difference between the old grand system-builders and contemporary specialists.

However, on reflection I find myself torn: There is no doubt a puzzle-solving motivation among contemporary analytic philosophers. But also I think people are still irrationally attracted to general propositions that they then tie themselves in argumentative knots to justify -- e.g., that we should/shouldn't give large sums of money to the poor, that philosophy can/can't reveal special a priori truths, that robots can't/can't be conscious, etc.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Phaedrus, I couldn't agree with you more! (Well, except for the statement that philosophers always try to bring things into clearer focus.) Thanks for the comment.

Neil said...

There is, of course, a different and more important question: does it matter what our motivations are? Being driven to defend a view may be a good thing, not, of course, from the individual's perspective, but from the discipline's.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Absolutely, Neil. Thomas Kuhn and Helen Longino are good on this issue.

I see how what I wrote here might suggest otherwise; and I guess I do think that some motivations should arouse our suspicions more than others....

Hallq said...

My first comment was poorly-phrased. When I asked what the journals would say, I meant the people who write in the journals, not the people who control them. As you say, getting published is obviously contingent on finding something interesting to say. So what kinds of things are you thinking of, in terms of ways "an author could show how it's relevant and interesting"?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

I think to be relevant and interesting, Russell should say something different from what others have said before, or better (not just stylistically better), or with better defense. Or, alternatively, there might be an interesting interpretive puzzle or symptomatic type of error that once resolved/revealed the reader may find illuminating.

There are probably other ways of being relevant and interesting, too. But on many of the issues -- e.g. pacifism -- though he puts things beautifully "homicidal lunatics were well-employed in killing each other" but sensible men "should keep out of their way while they were doing it" (p. 174-175), he doesn't really get into the meat of the issue such as why it would be okay (if he thought it would have been okay) just to let Hitler conquer Europe, given his genocidal projects.

Almathea said...

I go with the theory that philosphy is God's revenge for the Age of Reason. Curmudgeonly gnostics are always the most interesting. "Don't bug me, I'm trying to think!!!!"