Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Portraits From Memory, "Chapter" Two

“Why I Took to Philosophy,” pages 13-18

Greek skepticism of religion and sense data led to two strands of philosophy. One strand questions the validity of our common sense, and the other strand suggests that there is a deeper philosophical knowledge that comes closer to truth, and even a comfortable truth. “In almost all philosophy doubt has been the goad and certainty has been the goal [pp. 13-14].”

Russell’s interest in philosophy grew from the usual motives, with emphases on finding ineluctable truths and “some satisfaction for religious impulses [p. 14].” He found mathematics to his liking, despite his reluctance to have to accept unproven postulates before headway could be made; he hoped that human society could be put on the same mathematical footing as physics.

His concerns about the foundations of mathematics were sustained when he suspected (correctly) that his Cambridge professors were hawking incorrect proofs. As a result, he welcomed Kantian philosophy, which later he discarded. “I was encouraged,” writes Russell, “in my transition to philosophy by a certain disgust with mathematics, resulting from too much concentration and too much absorption in the sort of skill that is needed in examinations [p. 16].” After finishing his math exams at Cambridge, he sold his math books and devoted himself to philosophy.

Russell’s hope of overcoming his growing religious skepticism was bolstered by his temporary embrace of Hegelian philosophy, which he learned from his friend McTaggart. (Apparently McTaggart later was to play a role in expelling Russell from Trinity College.) Closer examination of Hegel’s own work, full of confusions, led Russell to renounce this approach. Platonic ideal forms, with mathematics as their representation, offered an alternative refuge. “But in the end I found myself obliged to abandon this doctrine also, and I have never since found religious satisfaction in any philosophical doctrine that I could accept [p. 18].”

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