Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Unpopular Essays, Halftime

The length of Chapter 7 has pushed this intermission well past the midpoint of Unpopular Essays. The first “half” of Unpopular Essays provides a few broad themes, as well as the occasional nugget of wisdom or pithy adage – it is Russellian, I suppose.

One of the themes that emerges in Chapter 1 is how trade and contact with foreigners helps to undermine dogmatism. (See also the final part of Chapter 7 on this score.) In Chapter 2, we learn that inculcating what might be called a foreign frame of mind improves our thinking, too, especially in matters political. This is important, because dogmatism is a source of human misery.

The alternative to dogmatism is liberalism, which concerns itself not with what opinions are held, but the manner in which they are held – a liberal recognizes that he or she might be wrong, and that new evidence might require an adjustment in one’s opinions. (Education of the probabilistic nature of the world would be helpful, too, in turning political debate away from absolutist statements.) Liberalism is policy-relevant, in that it suggests that one adopt policies that will not prove disastrous if indeed, your opinions do turn out to be wrong. Avoid committing present evils based on some (possibly wrong) theory of how those evils will be justified by putative long-term benefits. That is, Russell’s consistent political advice is that of insuring against our own mistakes, even as we work to minimize those mistakes. (This point is raised most thoroughly in Chapters 1 and 2.)

In Chapter 3, Russell appears to ignore his own general political advice, when he argues that it may prove necessary to establish world government by force. Russell seems pretty convinced of the desirability of (the right form of) world government. (Even false dogmas would not be so bad if all nations taught the same ones – Chapter 7, part 2; Russell displays the same preference for global political monopoly in Marriage and Morals.) Russell’s prediction (Chapter 3) about the possible future courses for the world through the end of the 20th century proved to be false (or at least unfulfilled in a timely manner). His more general notion, that international law could be developed into something that would bring on a relative golden age, remains a common hope.

The human propensity to embrace nonsense avidly also is a theme of the first half of Unpopular Essays, though it is most prominent in Chapter 7. Russell’s writings on this score resonate, alas, given our current war on terror: fear breeds cruelty, along with the supposed justifications for the cruelty.

I won’t recount my favorites among the pearls of wisdom in the first half, with one exception (from Chapter 7, part 3): the idea that, when you find yourself getting angry with your interlocutor during a discussion, your anger should serve as a signal that your own opinion goes beyond what the evidence allows.


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