Saturday, August 16, 2008

Why Bertrand Russel Was Not A Philosopher: Always Learning and Never Able to Come to a Knowledge of the Truth

The field of philosophy is chock full of disagreements. There are even disagreements on what philosophy itself is and what it is to be a philosopher. In the face of such pervasive, and, on some accounts, insoluble problems, some have gone so far as to set their hopes on exobiological beings to deliver us.[1]

Since Bertrand Russell had more opinions than the average man,[2] and since he could (if you ask him) leap tall philosophical problems in a single bound, we should not be surprised that some have looked to him as just the kind of hero we need.[3] Confident as Russell was that he could swoop down on any situation, he, too, offered an answer on what philosophy and philosophers were all about. It is just here, though, right when we might have thought that we found someone to deliver us from our common (fallen?) human predicament, that we have instead the beginning of a long list of proofs that Russell was suppressing his true, and quite unphilosophical, identity. He said:

"Philosophy, as I shall understand the word, is something intermediate between theology and science. Like theology, it consists of speculations on matters as to which definite knowledge has, so far, been unascertainable; but like science, it appeals to human reason rather than to authority, whether that of tradition or that of revelation. All definite knowledge – so I should contend – belongs to science; all dogma as to what surpasses definite knowledge belongs to theology. But between theology and science there is a No Man’s Land, exposed to attack from both sides; this No Man’s Land is philosophy. Almost all the questions of most interest to speculative minds are such as science cannot answer, and the confident answers of theologians no longer seem so convincing as they did in former centuries. Is the world divided into mind and matter, and, if so, what is mind and what is matter”? Is mind subject to matter, or is it possessed of independent powers? Has the universe any unity or purpose? Is it evolving towards some goal? Are there really laws of nature, or do we believe in them only because our innate love of order? Is man what he seems to the astronomer, a tiny lump of impure carbon and water impotently crawling on a small and unimportant planet? Or is he what he appears to Hamlet? Is he perhaps both at once? Is there a way of living that is noble and another that is base, or are all ways of living merely futile? If there is a way of living that is noble, in what does it consist, and how shall we achieve it? Must the good be eternal in order to deserve to be valued, or is it worth seeking even if the universe is inexorably moving towards death? Is there such a thing as wisdom, or is what seems such merely the ultimate refinement of folly? To such questions no answer can be found in the laboratory. Theologies have professed to give answers, all too definite; but that very definiteness causes modern minds to view them with suspicion. The studying of these questions, if not the answering of them, is the business of philosophy."[4]

The above quote all too easily demonstrates that reason - on Russell’s own account of it - is incapable of answering fundamental questions. Theology could not help Russell because he did not have confidence in its pronouncements; science, too, was of precious little help, because such things are outside its sphere and competence altogether.

In other words, there is knowledge to be found in science, but only of a relatively trivial sort, i.e., not on ultimate questions; on ultimate questions we only have the confident but surely mistaken pronouncements of theology. And as for speculative reason, autonomous reason, reason humanistically construed and utilized, no answers have been forthcoming either. This means that on the map of human inquiry, philosophy is a kind of Lost Lane. It is a knowledge free zone. It is a zone where important questions are studied, but no answers have been discovered, at least not by Bertrand Russell. Thus instead of possessing extraordinary logical powers capable of transcending long-standing conundrums, we learn here that Russell’s feet were fastened to the earth as much as anyone’s; perhaps more so.

Although at this point we might still be magnanimous and consider Russell a philosopher, the above does at least reveal that he was the kind of philosopher who was more of a mild-mannered reporter of questions to which, along with all other covenant-breakers, he did not have any answers.[5]

It might be asked, however, if philosophy does not give us the answers that we refuse to accept from theology, why did a man like Russel ever leave Smallville (science) with its facts, trivial as they are? And why did Russell still demonstrate such affection for Lost Lane (i.e., Russell’s No Man’s Land). To this, Russell responds:

"It is not good either to forget the questions that philosophy asks, or to persuade ourselves that we have found indubitable answers to them. To teach how to live without certainty, and yet without being paralyzed by hesitation, is perhaps the chief thing that philosophy, in our age, can still do for those who study it."[6]

Astoundingly, what Russell appears to be saying here is that we should ask questions, but never actually get around to answering them; to answer them is to be dogmatic, and dogmatism is as deadly as kryptonite to “philosophers” like Russell. This kind of deep-seated antipathy against knowledge and wisdom ought to be seen as the real enemy of philosophy. What is this (by Jorel!) but dogmatism against knowledge?

Whereas we might gratuitously refer to an interrogater as a philosopher, what should we call someone who is, in principle, opposed to all answers? Such a dogmatic reusal from the outset to actually find knowledge and wisdom ought to be seen as its own refutation and disabuse us of the view that what we have is a philosopher on our hands.

As paradoxical as it may seem, all of this reveals that Bertrand Russell, Mr. Worldly Wise of the Twentieth Century, was not, in fact, a philosopher (i.e., a lover of knowledge/wisdom). Russell turns out, as said, to be nothing more than a mild-mannered reporter of questions to which he did not have answers and to which he was committed in advance, to never finding the answers. Who will save us from such “philosophers”? Thanks be to God through our Lord Jesus Christ, in whom are deposited all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.
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[1] Perhaps the most famous example of this is Carl Sagan, whose telos for living was the search for extraterrestrial life, which, he believed, held the answers to the cosmos with all its riddles. See William Poundstone’s book, Carl Sagan: A Life in the Cosmos (New York: Henry Holt an Company, 1999).
[2] Paul Johnson, in his Intellecutals (New York: Harper & Row, 1988), p. 197, says of Russell, “[Throughout the course of his life] he put forth a steady stream of counsel, exhortation, information and warnings on an astonishing variety of subjects. One bibliography…lists sixty-eight books…he published works on geometry, philosophy, mathematics, justice, social reconstruction, political ideas, mysticism, logic, Bolshevism, Chiana, the brain, industry, the ABC of atoms…science, relativity, education, skepticism, marriage, happiness, morals, idleness, religion, international affairs, history, power, truth, knowledge, authority, citizenship, ethics, biography, atheism, wisedom, the future, disarmament, peace, war crimes and other topics. To these should be added a huge output of newspaper and magazine articles embracing every conceivable them, not excluding The Use of Lipstick, the Manners of Tourists, Choosing Cigars and Wife-Beating.”
[3] In 1950 Russell was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature as “the champion of humanity and freedom of thought.”
[4] Russell, The History of Western Philosophy, p. xiii-xiv
[5] Russell evidences this same failure throughout his other writings. As one other example, in an article on “Appearance and Reality”, after concluding that, for all our efforts to know the truth about things, Russell says that all we really achieve is the modest insight that “things are not what they seem”. He goes on to say: “Philosophy, if it cannot answer so many questions as we could wish, has at least the power of asking questions which increase the interest of the world, and show the strangeness and wonder lying just below the surface even in the commonest things of daily life”. As found in Russell’s The Problems of Philosophy (Buffalo, New York: Prometheus Books, 1988), p. 16
[6] Ibid, p. xiv

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