Russell’s “The Value of Philosophy”

There is a widespread philosophical tendency towards the view that tells us that man is the measure of all things, that truth is man-made, that space and time and the world of universals are properties of the mind, and that, if there be anything not created by the mind, it is unknowable and of no account for us. This view … is untrue; but in addition to being untrue, it has the effect of robbing philosophic contemplation of all that gives it value, since it fetters contemplation of prejudices, habits, and desires, making an impenetrable veil between us and the world beyond. The man who finds pleasure in such a theory of knowledge is like the man who never leaves his domestic circle for fear his word might not be law.

I think Russell is right on a number of different points here. I’m especially fond of his combative stance against relativism, against the presuppositions that would shut down all philosophical inquiry. He shows that taking the ball and going home is not a way to play the game. It rings like the Socratic reproach, a reminder to not look at the argument exclusive from yourself, for the work to be something you merely do and not something you are. I’d like to use a different imagery than Russell to sketch this view, or perhaps take up a different way of looking at the particular philosophical states he describes in this quote.

Russell claims the relativistic view threatens to “fetter contemplation of prejudices, habits, and desires, making an impenetrable veil between us and the world beyond.”, but he doesn’t give us more. However, The sentence after this one gives an analogy we can use to help describe the state, namely the refusal to confront the world in fear of failure. He seems to be characterizing a certain kind of ego worship, that the man who won’t engage (honestly) with another is exercising his powers to worship himself. Russell describes it as “the joining of the self and not self” which is helpful, the kind of language he uses fosters this kind of interpretation. What I think is inherent in Russell’s view but isn’t explicit, is the importance of humility in doing philosophical work. Stephen Short, in his testimony to Auburn’s philosophy program, described it as being decapitated.

In order to engage the world, you have to be willing to expose yourself to it. In order to do that, you must be willing to undertake the blow that almost everything you think you know is false. A person who worships himself will not be able to engage the world in this way, humility has no place in his world. This is because most of his time is spent guarding his ego rather than exposing it, he show you why he is right rather than see why he is wrong. He is unwilling to even begin to think he may be wrong. This is the same kind of attitude Socrates battled day after day. This pride, as Russell says, “makes an impenetrable veil between us and the world beyond”, because, in a certain sense, there is no world beyond for the prideful person. His world is himself. He will defend it to his death.

So, what does humility look like in Russell’s view? Russell describes it as a kind of engagement with the world. The union of self and not self. It is a fitting description. IF I want to do philosophy, I have to open myself up to the world. This may end with my ego falling apart. It takes courage to be able to pick up the pieces of your ego and start over again, to rebuild something different. But, if I continue down this path, I enter in to a particular kind of union with the world. It is reminiscent of Kant’s metaphysics (though I would never consider myself competent enough to extrapolate this). In a sense, I become more of a person by engaging the world. If I understand personhood as communion with others and the world, I see that this kind of humility will not only allow me to engage philosophy in the right way, but will allow me to become more human. I think, at philosophy’s core, this is the attraction. In order to do philosophy correctly, you must overcome a certain kind of pride, enter into humility, and this makes you a better person. Would Russell agree with this interpretation? I’m not sure, but I think his paper reflects the same attitudes.

As I start down this path, I am always accosted by Socrates to be completely honest. To reject pride, and to expose my ego to the world. It is not a one time achievement, but a life long journey.

~ by Barky on August 29, 2011.

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