Thursday, August 14, 2008

Unpopular Essays, Full Time

Since the belated halftime assessment there have been only five further chapters in Unpopular Essays, and the last two, concerning eminent men and the spoof auto-obituary, are not particularly connected to the main theme of the previous essays, which has concerned the dangers of dogmatism and the benefits of a liberal frame of mind. Chapter 8, on teaching, notes that countering dogmatism is a central role for a teacher, though one that often is opposed by the powers that be (and those powers might be funding and operating the schools). As a teacher myself, I was struck by Russell’s claim that though imparting information is primary to the mission of teaching, it is less important than the side effects that can accompany that dissemination, including inculcating the practice of impartial inquiry. (I wonder if information transmission, in the age of the internet, remains the primary goal of teaching. On most topics, a high school or college student who spends 20 minutes can be more informed than his or her teacher – that was always theoretically possible, but now it is practically relevant, as the student can rapidly access the relevant information. Developing the Smithian triad of Wonder, Surprise, and Admiration might be more important than ever in teaching.)

In Chapter 9, “Ideas That Have Helped Mankind,” well-known non-Christian Russell mentions that Christianity overall has been a force for liberalism. (This is reminiscent of John Stuart Mill’s point that Christianity was better than its predecessors in promoting the interests of women.) Russell again argues for world government, but he does not (unlike in Chapter 3) mention the possible necessity of installing that government by force. I was (once again) not impressed by his retort to those who argue that a world government would prove oppressive – Russell notes that this is true of national governments, too, but that the possibility (indeed, it seems, the likelihood, in the early years) of governmental oppression does not mean that anarchy is to be preferred. My problem with this argument is that the fact that there are many, many nations, and that emigration is to some extent possible, helps to contain (not all that effectively, alas) the depredations of national governments. A world government would lack feasible competitors, lack exit options, and so at least one channel that restrains tyranny would be eliminated. In Chapter 10, “Ideas That Have Harmed Mankind,” we see again Russell’s concern with the readiness of people to punish others, along with perhaps the main argument against dogmatism and in favor of tolerance: “Most of the greatest evils that man has inflicted upon man have come through people feeling quite certain about something which, in fact, was false [p. 176].”

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