Sunday, November 27, 2011

Portraits From Memory, "Chapter" Six

“Beliefs: Discarded and Retained,” pages 38-43

With help from G. E. Moore, Russell discarded his early enchantment with Hegel, and Hegel’s “one”: “When I first threw over Hegel, I was delighted to be able to believe in the bizarre multiplicity of the world [p. 38].” Russell’s reaction to his dismissal of Hegel was, at first, to take as true all that Hegel disbelieved. So Russell accepted the multiplicity of truths, the atomistic nature of the world, and the reality of abstract mathematical concepts. “Pythagoras and Plato had let their views of the universe be shaped by mathematics, and I followed them gaily [p. 39].” Whitehead’s ability to adopt mathematical logic to make sense of, not a world of definite borders but a world of vague outlines, lent Russell a way out of conflating ideal forms with reality.

Over time, what first appears to be fundamental turns out to be mere superficial. Imagine existing on the surface of the sun, with its flux of swirling gasses. There would be no “things” to count, and hence you wouldn’t dream of counting. What we take as common sense on earth would be the most “fantastic metaphysical speculation [p. 40]” in such an environment.

Reality is imprecise, whereas mathematics is precise. There is no such thing as a rod that is exactly one yard long, and the notion of a yard is itself imprecise. Plato, at least, was correct in locating exactness outside of earth, as it has no reality here. Russell mourns the lack of precision, but takes solace in the fact that even in the real world (and hence outside of its domain of purity), mathematics is the useful, if blunt, tool for making progress.

In his reaction against Hegel, Russell’s atomistic view encompassed language: a word had to signify some thing. But logic’s interesting words, like “if” or “not,” do not readily admit to such an interpretation; Russell “came to think that many words and phrases have no significance in isolation, but only contribute to the significance of whole sentences [p. 42].”

“Nevertheless” – another problematic word! – Russell indicates that most of his beliefs about logic have survived for the fifty-five years since he jettisoned Hegel. The world is not limited to what is in our heads. “I still think that what we can know about the world outside the thoughts and feelings of living beings, we can know only through physical science [p. 42].” We must observe, and cannot just reason our way to truths. [In Unpopular Essays, Chapter 4, Russell chides philosophers like Descartes and Leibniz for believing that it is “possible to find out important things, such as the nature of God, by merely sitting still and thinking…”.]

Russell notes that his interest and activism in public issues, including the struggle for women’s suffrage, long pre-dated World War I. “But it was not until 1914 that social questions became my main preoccupation [p. 43].”

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