Friday, November 30, 2012

New Hopes for a Changing World, Chapter Four

“The Limits of Human Power,” pages 26-34

We needn’t abase ourselves before nature, now that our scientific understanding has developed, but we shouldn’t exaggerate our power, either. Political leaders in both the east and west seem to want to believe they are gods, capable not only of understanding how to work with nature but also to overcome it; Lysenkoism is a case in point. “Such opinions, to my mind, represent a form of insane megalomania entirely alien to the scientific spirit [p. 27].” We see megalomania at work again when those who want to change the world – without bothering to understand it – think that self-assertion generates the knowledge that science cannot provide. Difficult questions about the future prospects for oil, for land, for farming and for population, are sidestepped with confident claims that oil will be protected if capitalism will be replaced, or that Providence will see to the world’s food supply.

Elements, organic material, and life, develop from simpler into more complex forms. Modern industry takes complex raw materials and simplifies them – though the nuclear fusion (and associated hydrogen bombs) that are on the horizon will be a step in the other direction. Accompanying human industry is waste and the inevitable increase in entropy. The huge industrial demands for both renewable (wood) and non-renewable (coal, oil) resources represent “a kind of rape [p. 30].” What took eons to put together is consumed as energy in a quick burst; when the inputs are gone, what then for industry and mankind? Our capital stock is being consumed. “Modern industry is, in fact, a spendthrift, and sooner or later must suffer the penalty of spendthrifts [p. 31].”

The low hanging fruit of accessible energy is being plucked – standards of living will fall as we are forced to look for the less accessible supplies. Industry will grow well beyond what currently exists, but it will eventually decline. We could forestall the problem if we found the political will to curtail the over-exploitation of the earth.

Agriculture despoils the soil, which is a tolerable cost to bear if there is lots of unused soil and a small human population, and if the soil regenerates itself quickly. But we are beyond those conditions, so we see rising food prices. The increasing difficulty of feeding the population cannot be traced to the ideological tint of any current government; rather, its roots are deep in nature. Perhaps scientific advance offers a way out, by making soil unnecessary for crops – but not yet, and the resulting food from such an advance is unlikely to taste as good.

Science might lessen our energy burden, too. Solar power, atomic energy, and the potential for nuclear fission could make energy considerably less scarce. The scientific approach to human problems is quite recent, only 200 years old. “Seeing what it has already accomplished, it would be very rash to place any limits upon what it may accomplish in the future [p. 33].”

On the other hand, scientific advance might hold a poisoned chalice, one from which we nevertheless might sip due to a shortfall of wisdom. The resulting destruction of human life (and maybe all earthly life) might one day be learned of by beings on some distant, indifferent planet, and inspire them to manage their own conflicts better. “If so, man will not have lived in vain [p. 34].”

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

New Hopes for a Changing World, Chapter Three

“Mastery over Physical Nature,” pages 15-25

Mankind is of recent vintage by geological standards, but our technical prowess might mean that we are nearing the end of our run. To avoid extinction, we must think at the level of our species, and not of any particular subset of our species.

Russell embarks on a pre-history of man, necessarily conjectural. Our ape ancestors, beset by population pressures, splintered into arboreal and terrestrial groups. The stone weapons of the upright walking hominids proved decisive, and these intelligent creatures spread over the earth. Their brains grew, and a million or so years ago, they became essentially what we know as human.

Early humans could not teach much to their children (or to others), but the development of language changed that: one voice could be heard both wide and far. Intelligence grew in importance, and so natural selection pushed the species in the direction of greater intelligence. But brain size and hominid intelligence leveled off some half a million years ago, it seems, to the point where if some proto-human time traveler moved 500,000 years forward to today, he or she would do fine at school.

Not that our creature wouldn’t give up some advantages when moving to the modern era. In his own time he could roam freely, rarely meet a stranger, exercise sufficiently just in the course of meeting his basic needs, and live on friendly terms within his tribe. The occasional massacres between tribes were a downside, but probably rare while the human(oid) population was low. A constant threat was the potential for hunger and even starvation.

The invention of tools that help kill animals, and the discovery of fire, were major advances. We don’t know the origin of language, but humans developed speech and other primates did not. “On the whole I am inclined to think that language has been the most important single factor in the development of man [p. 19].” Writing further enhanced the ability of language to transmit information. Agriculture and the domestication of animals were other, post-language contributors to progress. In the aftermath of the establishment of agriculture, only industrialization serves as a rival in terms of promoting human welfare – and industrialization followed a few thousand years of little advance in the quality of civilization, even as the extent of civilization spread in geographical terms.

Machines and applied science began to make their revolutionary marks at the end of the eighteenth century. The direct impact of industrialization is on the man v. nature conflict, but it also necessitates a still-forthcoming alteration in man v. man and man v. himself. The fact that a new equilibrium has not been established in these two other conflicts is “the main cause of the present troubles of the world [p. 21].”

Gains in agricultural productivity traditionally result in population increases, and not in higher average consumption. Nonetheless, output beyond subsistence is what made possible attention to politics and war, science and art; this surplus maintains kings and philosophers, artists and musicians. In the modern US, not only are living standards high, but a very large segment of the population produces no tangible output, either agricultural or industrial.

In rich societies, the despotism of nature has been overcome, so people should be free to follow many different pursuits. The choices are not totally unconstrained, however, and we find that rich nations devote large quantities of their surplus to military production. So increasing surpluses do not automatically translate into higher human welfare. Given the current political situation, a technological advance that permits huge strides in production will reduce human welfare, as more resources will be diverted to military output: “our new mastery of nature brings new responsibilities and new duties [p. 24].”

While humans still have limits, the constraints imposed by nature have been slackened considerably. “It will not be long before it becomes possible to travel to the moon [p. 24].” Science allows us to tame nature, but by itself cannot resolve the conflicts among men, and within each individual.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

New Hopes for a Changing World, Chapter Two

“Three Kinds of Conflict,” pages 12-14

The three section titles of New Hopes for a Changing World, it turns out, also serve to delineate the three kinds of conflict: man and nature; man and man; and, man and himself. The arenas and weapons associated with these conflicts vary among the conflicts and over time; for instance, the inner conflict used to be addressed primarily with religion, though some now believe (Russell does not fully agree) that advances in psychology can transfer personal turmoil from the religious to the scientific realm.

Not losing the struggle against nature is a prerequisite to engaging in the other conflicts. Social relations grow in importance as mastery over nature builds: first, improved mastery itself requires inputs from many people, and second, the resources released by the diminishing threat from nature can be redirected towards engaging in conflict with other people.

As technology develops, eventually the perceived payoff to a social group will be greater by cooperating with others than by attempting to kill them. “When this stage is reached what may be called the demands of technique require a cessation, or at least mitigation, of the conflicts of man with man [p. 13].” The next conflict that needs to be resolved then will be – as it is now – the internal conflict. This conflict traditionally expresses itself by one part of a psyche labeling another part sinful, and seeking (but failing) to extirpate it. The internal dissension starts as a reflection of the constant external war, but when external war diminishes, the atavistic internal conflict stokes external conflict: enemies are deemed to be wholly sinful. War with others cloaks the real, internal war. Resolving the inner war becomes necessary for external peace.

The resolution of each of these wars is harmonious co-existence. For wars among men, the harmony will take the form of a world government. But even this institution will not prove stable without inner peace. “This, in a nutshell, is the history of man – past, present, and (I hope) future [p. 14].” This brief chapter ends with the promise that the remainder of the book intends to fill in the details of this broad-stroke illustration of the development of human history.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

New Hopes for a Changing World, Chapter One

“Current Perplexities,” pages 3-11

We see that we are drifting into a calamitous nuclear war. “But although our reason tells us we ought to shudder at such a prospect, there is another part of us that enjoys it, and so we have no firm will to avert misfortune, and there is a deep division in our souls between the sane and the insane parts [p. 3].” Many people become risk seekers, or consume rather than invest, on the grounds that the shadow of war suggests a brief lifespan. The misery of such an uncertain existence feeds upon itself, by changing attitudes towards the rivals who are thought to be the cause of the uncertainty; the worsened relations help to stoke the possibility of war, rationalizing the pessimism.

The issues facing us are complex, and will not be solved by the outdated, simple-minded strategies of conquest favored by MacArthur and Stalin. But that doesn’t mean that uncertainty and despair are the fates of the intelligent observer. This book intends to offer an achievable path of hope, one that can be taken with confidence.

Westerners looked at the East with a good-natured curiosity and approbation, until the Japanese developed into rivals. The Japanese subsequently were defeated, but their militaristic challenge to the West has spread to other parts of Asia. Westerners now recognize that the economic development of Asia is necessary to restrain Soviet influence. Development is complex, because Asia still dwells in the Malthusian trap, where improvements in living standards are countered by increased populations.

The undesirable elements of the Western life and outlook are easily transferred. “But what is best in the West – the spirit of free inquiry, the understanding of the conditions of general prosperity, and emancipation from superstition – these things powerful forces in the West prevent the East from acquiring [p. 7].” Russia, under its current system of government, will stoke the negative, militaristic features of a rising Asia.

Africa’s economic development also is constrained by population pressures – and as with Asia, birth control policies are necessary. Africans naturally attribute their plight to colonial exploitation, though that general charge is no longer sustainable. The end of colonial administration before a functional domestic civil service is brought into existence will be a setback, as Haiti demonstrates. Civilization is not inherently stable against other forces.

Freedom is a new condition for the Western mind, and its manifold benefits are accompanied, due to its novelty, with uneasiness. When the spirit is oppressed, the dogmas of Rome or of Moscow beckon, but they must be resisted in favor of the uncertainty that freedom foments and requires. “The free man, full grown, shall be full of joy and vigor and mental health, but in the meantime he suffers [p. 8].”

Private as well as public life needs new virtues, and the disposal of some old supposed virtues. The traditional notion of sin, a negative and judgmental doctrine, has already been supplanted in most people’s allegiance, even if they have not explicitly developed a full-fledged alternative philosophy.

Russell offers the outline of such an alternative philosophy, one that reflects his established views towards happiness. First, the concept of sin must be rejected entirely, and not just at surface levels; otherwise, feelings of guilt will continually arise, and undermine contentment. But it is in being happy that we will be led to be good, as happy people are curious, happy people avoid envy and intoxication. “What I should put in the place of an ethic in the old sense is encouragement and opportunity for all the impulses that are creative and expansive [p. 11].” We must understand that our own happiness requires the happiness of others, that we must live in harmony. If people were really to feel this truth, both personal and political problems would evaporate. By letting out our inner demons, we can be subsumed by the world’s beauty.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Next Up: New Hopes for a Changing World

The Plan Must Be Obeyed. So, Reading Bertrand Russell turns to New Hopes for a Changing World. My copy is a black hardback published by Simon and Schuster. I do not recall how I came about my copy, but I am honored to see that it apparently was originally(?) the property of the distinguished scholar Milton B. Singer.

The only date I can find in the text is in the copyright information section; that date is 1951, but perhaps the reference is to the British edition published in 1951 by George Allen & Unwin, with this US edition printed the following year. New Hopes for a Changing World is 213 pages long, followed by a page containing a one-paragraph “About the Author” section. This “About the Author” addendum pretty clearly served as the basis for the five-years-later “About the Author” paragraph that closes Portraits From Memory. There is no index in New Hopes for a Changing World, but an index compiled later is available online (18-page pdf here); the introductory material to this index is what makes me believe that the Simon and Schuster edition was published in 1952, not 1951. This supplemental, helpful index, like that for Portraits From Memory, was prepared by Roma Hutchinson.

New Hopes for a Changing World contains 21 chapters, divided into three parts: Part One, “Man and Nature”; Part Two, “Man and Man”; and Part Three, “Man and Himself.” Here are the chapter titles and divisions into parts:

Part One, “Man and Nature”
Chapter I. Current Perplexities
Chapter II. Three Kinds of Conflict
Chapter III. Mastery over Physical Nature
Chapter IV. The Limits of Human Power
Chapter V. Population

Part Two: Man and Man
Chapter VI. Social Units
Chapter VII. The Size of Social Units
Chapter VIII. The Rule of Force
Chapter IX. Law
Chapter X. Conflicts of Manners of Life
Chapter XI. World Government
Chapter XII. Racial Antagonism
Chapter XIII. Creeds and Ideologies
Chapter XIV. Economic Co-operation and Competition
Chapter XV. The Next Half-Century

Part Three: Man and Himself
Chapter XVI. Ideas Which Have Become Obsolete
Chapter XVII. Fear
Chapter XVIII. Fortitude
Chapter XIX. Life Without Fear
Chapter XX. The Happy Man
Chapter XXI. The Happy World

Onwards, then. As Stalin did not say, there are no fortresses, and almost no Russell texts, that Reading Bertrand Russell cannot storm.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Portraits From Memory, Full Time

Fourteen “chapters” have come and gone since the second interval. (Here are links to the first and second end-of-period reports.) Two of the chapters (on Lord John Russell and John Stuart Mill) are biographical, similar to the middle, “Portraits From Memory” section of the book, though the Mill contribution is not from memory and is much deeper than the earlier biographical sketches. The Lord John Russell and Mill chapters are succeeded by five essays with a philosophical bent. These in turn are followed by two chapters concerning writing, the first involving advice for historians addressing non-specialists and a second adumbrating Russell’s own approach to writing. Happiness, societal suppression of dissent, communism, and reducing the potential for nuclear holocaust are the topics that round out the book.

Russell does not exactly endorse Mill’s theoretical incoherence, but nonetheless notes how Mill’s moral stance led to practical beneficence. I was reminded of what Adam Gopnik wrote in The New Yorker, in the course of reviewing Richard Reeve’s 2008 biography of Mill: “Certainly no one has ever been so right about so many things so much of the time as John Stuart Mill, the nineteenth-century English philosopher, politician, and know-it-all nonpareil…”. Russell rightly sanctions the enduring value of On Liberty and The Subjection of Women, and signals the outdatedness of A System of Logic – a work that Mill, in Chapter VII of his Autobiography, linked with On Liberty as possible lasting contributions. Russell finds Mill to be too derivative to reside in the pantheon of outstanding philosophers, but maybe originality is overvalued? Here is Mill in his Autobiography on the lack of innovation underlying On Liberty: “As regards originality, it has of course no other than that which every thoughtful mind gives to its own mode of conceiving and expressing truths which are common property.” At any rate, Russell does for Mill what he did earlier in Portraits From Memory for Wittgenstein and Conrad, Moore and Whitehead: he implants a desire in the reader to learn more about these remarkable people. On this dimension, Bertie’s godfather, I think, fares slightly better than does his grandfather.

The theoretical incoherence that Russell finds in Mill he adopts himself, more-or-less explicitly, in the “Mind and Matter” essay. Should we take a physiological or a psychological view of mental processes? Russell suggests we take whichever approach makes sense for our purposes, like physicists who examine light sometimes as a wave and sometimes as a particle. Russell believes that we infer the physical world, and that our inferences can be mistaken. Russell notes that his views on mind and matter have precursors in the ideas of Heraclitus, Hume, and Berkeley. Nonetheless, he makes a strong claim for the value of his contribution, proposing that, if he is correct, humanity can put an end to millennia of confusion over the nature of mind and matter.

Russell’s essay “Knowledge and Wisdom” holds that wisdom requires that breadth of knowledge be matched by breadth of feeling. [Russell’s point is reminiscent of Adam Smith, who, in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, described the discretion of an admirable person in these terms: “This superior prudence, when carried to the highest degree of perfection, necessarily supposes the art, the talent, and the habit or disposition of acting with the most perfect propriety in every possible circumstance and situation. It necessarily supposes the utmost perfection of all the intellectual and of all the moral virtues. It is the best head joined to the best heart. It is the most perfect wisdom combined with the most perfect virtue.”] In the subsequent two chapters, Russell argues that the study of philosophy can help both the head and the heart – an idea Russell suggested in both Human Society in Ethics and Politics and in Unpopular Essays. Philosophy (and history!) can kindle a detached impartiality, helping us to overcome our native parochialism. Alas, it seems that the ability to see all sides of a question has become widely viewed as undesirable.

Russell does not hold a view of man as homo economicus. Rather, Russell’s view (like, once again, Adam Smith’s) is that people often fall short of understanding their own self interest. They fail to see that their us-versus-them approach to the world harms their well-being, or that nuclear war must be avoided, even though these failures come at great cost. They allow fear to drive them to actions which increase their danger. Those philosophers who have honed their ability to look at issues disinterestedly, however, are better placed to comprehend their self-interest and to find ways to cooperate with others in securing common ends – though they would be opposed by the institutionalized forces of fanaticism. The suppression of dissenting ideas has long been the policy of the world, even though it hinders the search for truth and eviscerates the education of the young.

It is the nature of organizations to expand their power and influence. Indeed, this propensity lies at the heart of the failings of really-existing socialism, where the small vanguard that exercises dictatorship in the name of the proletariat ends up serving only its own narrow interests. And of course, one cannot safely point to the shortcomings of Communist theory and practice in Communist countries themselves, while Western nations inadvertently enhance the reputation of Communist ideas by trying to suppress them.

Atomic weapons have changed the calculus of war. Now, there can be no outcome recognizable by any side, or any neutral, or any animal species, as a victory in a war between the Iron Curtain adversaries. There are two potential paths forward: one is to eliminate (or greatly curtail) nuclear weapons, another is to suppress enmity and to renounce war itself. The first path is not sustainable, however, if enmity remains: in a crisis, both sides will have the ability and the incentive to build nuclear weapons, and will recognize the existence of that ability and incentive in the other side. So it is to mutual understanding and the reduction of enmity that the rival nations, and the neutral nations, must turn. The task is immense, but the costs of failing at the task are so daunting, and the benefits attaching to a world free of the prospect of war so appealing, that the incentive to undertake the task is significant.

Has Russell’s view on preventing nuclear war proved correct? Largely, I think, yes, in that better relations between the East and West helped to create the conditions under which reductions in nuclear arms could take place. But something else happened during the Cold War, the development of a norm in which the use of a nuclear weapon (and to some extent chemical and biological weapons) became viewed as categorically different from the use of other weapons, as Tom Schelling noted in his 2005 Nobel Price (Economics) Lecture (11-page pdf here). The norm, perhaps aided in its growth by the mutual assured destruction facing the post-1948 USA and USSR, has survived the end of the Cold War. We are not out of the woods yet, of course, but as I type these words, in the wake of the 67th anniversary of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the taboo on the use of nuclear weapons remains strong, even if not universal.

As I page back through Portraits From Memory I am reminded of how much I enjoyed it. I believe that I needed the reminder because it was primarily the autobiographical and biographical material that captivated me; once the book took a turn (starting in "Chapter" Twenty-One, "Mind and Matter") in a more philosophical direction, my interest waned. Even the anti-war material at the end -- and I view Russell's anti-war work as of utmost importance -- did not fire my imagination as much as did the first twenty chapters. Behavioral economists indicate that the way we feel about an experience can be measured with decent accuracy by the average of our evaluation of the best part and the ending (or for painful experiences, by the average of our evaluation of the worst part and the ending). The last third of Portraits From Memory did not measure up, for me, to the first two-thirds; hence, as suggested, I required some refresher of the earlier parts -- converting them, if you like, into the ending -- to appreciate more fully the overall quality of the book.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Portraits From Memory, "Chapter" Thirty-Two

“Steps toward Peace,” pages 239-246

The subheading of this chapter indicates that this speech by Russell was delivered in absentia at the World Assembly for Peace in Helsinki.

Russell reiterates the stark choice of the previous chapter, that mankind must either give up war or face extinction. War with modern weapons does not allow for victory.

Friends of peace want to pursue an agreement by both sides not to employ nuclear weapons. I [Russell] think this approach is misguided. Weapons can be manufactured with a substantial degree of secrecy – a secrecy that would not allow an agreement to permit inspections to overcome mistrust. Further, once hostilities start, all such agreements will be effectively null and void. In a world war, nuclear weapons will be used – there is too much incentive on both sides to employ them for such weapons to be eschewed. So first it is enmity between the East and West that must be tackled, before hydrogen bombs can be eradicated.

The steps to alleviate enmity parallel Russell’s ideas in the previous chapter. First, impel both sides to recognize the effects, and unwinnability, of a nuclear war. Nuclear war will not serve the interests of any nations, whether combatants or neutrals. Again, it is neutrals who are in the position to take this step – India is particularly well-suited by being on good terms with both sides, and by having enjoyed past success in international mediation. (India was singled out by Russell for this service a few years earlier, in Human Society in Ethics and Politics.)

Partisan Communists and anti-Communists must put aside their fierce opposition and their willingness to oppose by force; they should behave more like rival political parties within a nation. A sort of temporary armistice recognizing the status quo should be established. An atmosphere of peaceful coexistence, of détente, should then be nurtured to help smooth the way for negotiations. With friendly relations initiated, a world conference should be convened. The goal is to develop ways of dealing with interstate conflict without war. Again, the alternative is so devastating to all nations that the incentives to take on this difficult task should not be wanting.

An initial step in the negotiations should involve a reduction in the current stock of armaments. “There should be restoration of the freedoms that existed before 1914, especially freedom of travel and freedom in the circulation of books and newspapers and the removal of obstacles to the free dissemination of ideas across national boundaries [p. 244].” Humanity is one family, and sometimes governments get in the way of familial contentment. The negotiations must be capped by the creation of a new, transnational authority.

Since 1914, the world has been subject to immense violence and fear. People on one side of the Iron Curtain view the people on the other side as potential purveyors of death, not as everyday people like themselves. If we could remove the fear, renounce our quarrel, we would unleash productive forces that would benefit everyone. Those who understand our current peril must work with hope and energy, to persuade everyone that cooperation is a necessity. The hope “should inspire the lives, first perhaps of comparatively few, but gradually of increasing numbers, until with a great shout of joy men come together to celebrate the end of organized killing and the inauguration of a happier era than any that has ever fallen to the lot of man [p. 246].”

The speech “Steps toward Peace” is followed by a one-page “About the Author” section. It notes Russell’s early mastery of German and French, and lists most (all?) of the books he published between 1945 and 1956. There is no index to close the book, but a subsequently compiled index is available (6-page pdf here).

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Portraits From Memory, "Chapter" Thirty-One

“Man’s Peril,” pages 233-238

Forget for a moment our tribal loyalties, whether to country or race or ideology, and instead focus on our shared humanity. This common humanity is under great threat. How can we prevent a military calamity that could do untold damage to everyone?

A war involving hydrogen bombs not only would destroy great cities, but the radioactive fallout and consequent disease will make those who are temporarily spared death in the initial blast and inferno envy those whose demise is more sudden. Under modern conditions, war can become the ultimate calamity; those who are most knowledgeable tend to have the most negative assessments of what another war will bring. We are left with a glaring choice, whether we will abolish war or it will abolish us.

Nonetheless, people avoid facing this stark question. They recognize, perhaps, that the abolition of war will constrain national powers. Or perhaps they do not see the immediacy of the question to their own parochial interests. But they can put no faith in banning modern weapons while continuing to valorize war. In a dispute, both sides of the Iron Curtain will find it prudent to maintain, and potentially use, hydrogen bombs. Further, no side wants to appear weak by being the first to renounce war. So, as was the case with potential duelists in the past, the job of arranging an accommodation falls to neutral parties. They should have strong incentives to pursue an East-West rapprochement, given the vulnerability of neutrals should a war break out.

The neutrals can start by setting up a commission that would determine the effects of a nuclear war. They would ask non-neutral governments if they agree or disagree with the findings. This exercise is meant to impress upon everyone the absolute necessity of avoiding nuclear war.

Humanity, in its brief spell on earth, has accomplished wondrous things. “Is our race so destitute of wisdom, so incapable of impartial love, so blind even to the simplest dictates of self-preservation, that the last proof of its silly cleverness is to be the extermination of all life on our planet? – for it will be not only men who will perish, but also the animals, whom no one can accuse of Communism or anti-Communism [p. 238].” (Shades here of "harmless trilobites and butterflies.") Let us overcome our trivial differences, and we can usher in a future far exceeding past glories; “remember your humanity, and forget the rest [p. 238].”

Monday, August 6, 2012

Portraits From Memory, "Chapter" Thirty

“Why I am Not a Communist,” pages 229-232

Communist theory is flawed, and the likely consequences of Communist precepts applied to governing practice are horrific.

Marx’s ideas are confused – surplus value is a case in point – while hatred seems to drive his project. His willingness to promote the self-contradictory notion of surplus value must have drawn from its value as propaganda to inflame the working class. The claim that all history concerns class struggle is a reckless generalization, and the belief that Dialectical Materialism determines the course of history is equally false. “His theoretical errors, however, would not have mattered so much but for the fact that, like Tertullian and Carlyle, his chief desire was to see his enemies punished, and he cared little what happened to his friends in the process [pp. 229-230].”

Lenin’s and Stalin’s contributions to Marxism further worsened matters. Marx’s presaged transitional stage involving the dictatorship of the proletariat was intended for a society numerically dominated by industrial workers. Their “dictatorship” was not necessarily inconsistent with democratic principles. But the dictatorship of a small Bolshevik Party, and eventually Stalin’s personal dictatorship, are different matters entirely. Stalin starved millions of peasants, and killed millions of others in the gulag. He tried to force genetic science to obey his dictates, too.

Russell’s problems with Communism are deeper than his disagreement with Marx. Unchecked power held by a small cadre backed by secret police is a sure path to widespread abuses. Perhaps Russia will liberalize, or perhaps not. “In the meantime, all those who value not only art and science but a sufficiency of daily bread and freedom from the fear that a careless word by their children to a schoolteacher may condemn them to forced labor in a Siberian wilderness, must do what lies in their power to preserve in their own countries a less servile and more prosperous manner of life [p. 231].”

Perhaps at one time it would have been sensible to counter the evil of Communism with a war, but now the destructive potential of such of war and the uncertainty that a successor regime would be more humane counsels against such an approach. The appropriate path for the non-Communist world is defense against Communist aggression, the fostering of economic growth in less developed countries, and the abandonment of the vestiges of imperialism. Hate and poverty sustain Communism, so working to restrict hate and poverty serves an anti-Communist agenda.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Portraits From Memory, "Chapter" Twenty-Nine

“Symptoms of Orwell’s 1984,” pages 221-228

Readers enjoyed the gloomy portrait in 1984, and were comforted by the thought that only in Russia was the book relevant as description. Then they took steps that gradually converted Orwell's novel into an increasingly accurate prophesy beyond the Soviet Union.

Before 1914 freedom to travel and to speak, to publish and to emigrate, was widely available (at least to white men) outside of the benighted land of the Czars. Russia and its secret police were regarded as horrific. Now the non-Russian world is moving rapidly to non-freedom, though the gap with Russia doesn’t shrink, because the Russians have moved further into tyranny themselves. A Siberian exile in Czarist Russia was a model of freedom compared to Soviet labor camps, while travel to Western Europe has been suppressed even for non-exiled Russians.

Inhibition of the independent thought of first-rate people has been the rule throughout history, from ancient Athens onwards. “In most countries at most times, whatever subsequently came to be thought best was viewed with horror at the time by those who wielded authority [p. 223].” The Soviets (and now the West) have merely democratized the suppression, made it available to all, while the instruments of suppression, the police, have grown more powerful.

Organizations serve their ostensible purpose, but they also promote their own power, and it is this latter service to which they are most devoted. Woe betide the person who tries to publicize the wrongdoing of the police. And the courts enter too late in the game to offer protection to innocent non-conformists. Some prestigious universities can maintain intellectual freedom even in the face of McCarthy-like attacks, but less established schools cannot hold out. Fears of counterrevolutionaries in Russia and communists in the US have created a stifling culture.

Liberalism became established in fighting the increased power of monarchs; now, freedom lovers must counter the enhanced control by police and other organizations. A second police force is necessary, one aimed at establishing innocence, not guilt, of accused parties. Our current institutions make a mockery of the idea that it is better for many guilty people to go free than to convict one innocent: the state’s resources on the side of guilt cannot be matched by an accused person. Nonetheless, the social good really does demand that we worry more about a false conviction than a false acquittal. Perhaps the “assumption of guilt” would be appropriate when authorities are the accused, but not for other people.

The enhanced power of authorities busies itself with the suppression of truth and the promulgation of falsehood. Russians are denied knowledge of the rest of the world, and Chinese intellectuals must renounce any knowledge that does not descend from the approved sources. Not only are dissident thinkers punished, their families are as well. In much of the non-communist world, too, opinions at odds with the official ones will be ignored and their holders ostracized. “There is no longer, even among those who think themselves more or less liberal, a belief that it is a good thing to study all sides of a question [p. 227].” Libraries prune their collections on behalf of purported lovers of freedom: the censorship reveals their lack of confidence in winning arguments with ideas and evidence in a neutral marketplace of ideas. During World War II, British subjects were not prevented from listening to German radio: the tolerant policy of an authority confident in the rightness of its cause. “So long as we prevent Communists from being heard, we produce the impression that they must have a very strong case [p. 228].” We are sacrificing the means of acquiring truth – open and free discussion – to our fears, with the result that the gulf between truth and the officially accepted variety of truth grows to Orwellian dimensions. The intellectual suppression infects education, too. Teachers risk their careers by uttering ideas that deviate even moderately from the official truth. The suppression is accompanied with significant public support, despite the ignorance that is thereby mandated for children.

“Fear is the source from which all these evils spring, and fear, as is apt to happen in a panic, inspires the very actions which bring about the disasters that are dreaded [p. 228].” The fact that the dangers are real and even momentous does not justify a course of action which enhances those dangers. Our world of Orwellian doublethink is not stable; under current circumstances, it is succeeded by the equality of the global grave.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Portraits From Memory, "Chapter" Twenty-Eight

“The Road to Happiness,” pages 215-220

“For over two thousand years it has been the custom among earnest moralists to decry happiness as something degraded and unworthy [p. 215].” The Greek and Roman Stoics, the modern German philosophers, Carlyle: all have offered their support to immoral undertakings. An expression of disdain for happiness generally means that it is other people’s happiness that you disdain. Maybe you selflessly sacrifice your own happiness for mankind; you still are apt to fall into envy of those happy people who are less noble, and harden your heart towards them, as has happened to many Communists.

Theorists of the good life are apt to forget what frailty that flesh is heir to. Too much sacrifice of pleasure, even for a worthy cause, will render the cause repellent. (Recall Russell’s concern that many mothers sacrificed too much for their families.) The notion that a happiness consciously sought slips out of reach is true only if the method of seeking is mistaken, as it is if you take to drink. Your concrete ‘rule to live by’ should be specific to your preferences, but it should not be inconsistent with happiness.

Many people who possess the requisite conditions for happiness – health and sufficient income – are nonetheless unhappy. Generally this problem is due to an incorrect theory. Other animals, who lack theories but act on instinct, take pleasure in existence. Humans sometimes do not let their plans conduce enough with instinct, so even if they fulfill their plans, they cannot be happy. People who are happy share some common characteristics. “The most important of these things is an activity which at most times is enjoyable on its own account, and which, in addition, gradually builds up something that you are glad to see coming into existence [p. 217]” – like the Reading Bertrand Russell blog, Bertie does not add. Sometimes this involves child-rearing, sometimes artistic or scientific creation, sometimes gardening.

The sorts of activity that bring happiness require that a person not be overly fatigued. Alas, most jobs do not naturally bring happiness, and leave people too tired for active pursuits in their non-work time. Other people curtail their natural impulses (or insist that their children do) to avoid the negative thoughts of neighbors; the price of their propriety is constant boredom, borderline or full-on. The pursuit of success in society undermines happiness, even though such success can contribute to happiness – provided social success is not the goal of one's activity, and is accompanied by meaningful accomplishments.

Happiness in healthy and well-fed people requires “a stable framework built round a central purpose [p. 219]” – work and family, again, if suitable, serve this function – and some spontaneous, purposeless activity. Then quotidian existence can bring simple joy, without any need for deep theorizing. If the daily routine is not suitable, then a new routine, one consistent with happiness, is the antidote. And it may be that it is our physical, animal selves that need a larger place in our routine. Long walks do more than Milton can in enlivening the daily tasks of man.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Portraits From Memory, "Chapter" Twenty-Seven

“How I Write,” pages 210-214

When young, Russell loosely modeled his writing after that of John Stuart Mill, but with the additional goal of a sort of efficiency, the use of the minimum number of words consistent with clarity. At the age of twenty-one, Russell fell under the influence of Logan Pearsall Smith (who, like Mill, was (later) a relative of sorts). Pearsall Smith venerated style over substance, and invoked odd rules such as prodigious comma use and employing the word “and” only at the start of a sentence. Pearsall Smith also emphasized one more commonplace piece of wisdom, that of improving writing via rewriting. Russell’s attempts to abide by the rewriting precept (for style, not substance) brought a perverse result, weaker second drafts. But the experiment gave Russell the evidence he needed to save time in the future by eschewing rewriting.

Russell used to suffer from anxiety when contemplating a serious piece of writing, and he would make many frustrating, false starts. He overcame this problem by first thinking about a problem, sorting it out – and then taking time off: “…I needed a period of subconscious incubation which could not be hurried and was if anything impeded by deliberate thinking [p. 211].” Generally his subconscious would produce resolutions of the problems that remained, and the book would quickly appear, Athena-like. This process played out for his 1914 lectures and book Our Knowledge of the External World, where the resolution only coalesced in the moment he began to dictate, seamlessly, the material to a stenographer. [Russell also described his practice of waiting and letting inspiration come of its own accord in Chapter 5 of The Conquest of Happiness.] Though the resulting work was far from perfect, it would not have been improved at the time by further effort at composition.

Russell went through a more florid phase in his writing, associated with the time of producing "A Free Man’s Worship," “a work of which I do not now think well [p. 212].” The intentional imitation of Milton at that time was a mistake, as is all effort at imitation. Russell repeats his point from the previous chapter, that successful style involves a personal element that conscious imitation undermines. But reading good writers, without imitating them, can lend pleasing rhythm to prose.

Russell offers a few pieces of advice for writers: Prefer short words to long words; avoid run-on sentences; and, don’t use scientific-sounding terminology that muddles what it should clarify. Or rather, if you are a professor, go ahead and employ academic parlance for your first publication. You then will have established your bona fides, like Russell did, and henceforth you will have license to write in an understandable manner.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Portraits From Memory, "Chapter" Twenty-Six

“History As an Art,” pages 190-209

The stuff of mathematics and physics is largely for specialists, and there is little to be said for experts in these fields to try to conduct their work with an eye to pleasing the masses. But all individuals benefit from possessing the rudiments of history, and hence history must appeal to non-specialists. I [Russell] am such a non-specialist, and this chapter presents my consumer perspective on what history needs.

History is both a science and an art, though for individual writers, one or the other of these dimensions predominates. Part of the science lies in sifting through contradictory claims to ascertain facts, and even artistic historians must be faithful to facts. Scientific approaches often try to go beyond the facts, to identifying causal laws that link facts. But in history the facts themselves frequently are of more interest than the purported connections, whereas in physical sciences it is usually the other way around: how eclipses arise and the regularities that govern them are more interesting than any isolated eclipse. History and poetry share the property that what has happened (or the poem itself) is of more import than how it came about.

Causal relations in history shouldn’t be undervalued, however, even though they might not be as reliable as in physical sciences. “[A]s everybody now recognizes, supposed laws of economics have a much more temporary and local validity than was thought a hundred years ago [p. 193].” History does not offer the same vista for recurrence as astronomy does. Even previously valid relationships, like drought bringing subsequent conquest, cannot be expected to remain valid. The potential to accurately predict the consequences of the activities of Columbus, for instance, are quite limited. “For these reasons I think that scientific laws in history are neither so important nor so discoverable as is sometimes maintained [p. 194].” The grand theories (of Marx or Spengler, say) that purport to capture the past and the future march of mankind are misguided.

One interesting sidelight of history is individuals or people who somehow become detached from their original culture, and then develop along unexpected byways. Alas, one of Russell’s examples, of how the Thomas Pride whose purge of Parliament led to the execution of Charles I, was forced into American exile and lent his name to Pride’s Crossing, does not seem to comport with those facts that historians must honor.

What does history offer non-historians? Russell engages in introspection. His view of himself as but a drop in the river of existence – a view that he recommends for a happy life – developed from reading history. Learning history shows that life is not static, and that perfection is not attained, that our wisdom to date is but a small slice of what is possible. The truths we hold dear, history suggests, will not be everlasting, so we should be wary of overconfidence. Hold your beliefs with passion, but do not allow yourself to act on those beliefs in ways that will have horrendous consequences if your beliefs are wrong.(Russell is reiterating a point he made in Unpopular Essays.)

How to ensure that non-specialists maximize their benefit from reading history? First, a historical book must be written in an interesting way, so that non-specialists will read it, as they would a novel. But a historian has to care about the material in order to make it interesting, so while it is necessary to respect facts, it also helps to make judgments, to take sides, as it were, among the characters that history offers up. Historians who adopt a completely disinterested stance are dull writers. “No doubt a love of drama can lead an historian astray; but there is drama in plenty that requires no falsification, though only literary skill can convey it to the reader [p. 199].”

Word choice is one element of literary skill; technical terms should be avoided. A pleasing rhythm can be imparted by a writer who is so versed in his material that he needn’t check sources as he composes. A good style is of necessity personal, so a writer cannot succeed by aping another writer’s style. The facts have to cohere into a story, and too much rumination can destroy the vitality of the tale. “Conscientious people are apt to work too hard and to spoil their work by doing so [p. 200].” [Russell sees conscientious writers and mothers as falling into the same trap!]

Gibbon had feeling for his characters, and could imagine well what it was like to be in their presence – even if he does impose on them some 18th century straitjackets. The result is a lively chronicle, and suggests that an excellent history needs a sole authorial voice, not a committee of specialists. The growth of knowledge renders it harder for any one writer to succeed, but success remains possible and can be encouraged. The secret is a division of labor -- though not one that extends to the writing of an individual work – and standing on the shoulders of predecessors, as Gibbon did with Tillemont. The writing of large-scale history does not provide the time for much archaeological or archival research, so information from these sources must be imported from others. “Broadly speaking the amassing of facts is one thing, and the digesting of them is another [p. 201].”  

Plutarch’s Lives provide an example of another type of history, that of accounts of the lives of notable individuals – perhaps a genre that now is undervalued. The turn towards history of common people has much to recommend it, and it has filled large gaps. Nevertheless, it should not involve the sacrifice of the study of heroes, or to see all great acts as being socially determined. Indeed, an insistence on societal determinism can become self-fulfilling, as it undermines the individual motivation to undertake great things. People rightly can aspire to leading significant lives, and historical studies like Plutarch’s can stir those aspirations. Even those historical personages whose significance is not of the heroic variety provide information; after all, we take instruction from fictional characters like Oedipus and Hamlet, and existence in reality offers a further advantage! “All forms of greatness, whether divine or diabolic, share a certain quality, and I do not wish to see this quality ironed out by the worship of mediocrity [p. 203].” To value the history of great figures is not to devalue the study of everyday lives, nor to embrace Carlyle’s or Nietzsche’s hero fetish. And individuals have made scientific and artistic contributions that would not have been forthcoming had those specific individuals not existed, while the value of states or other collective entities is no more than the collection of the value of their individual human constituents.

People don’t read as much as they used to, and this trend is more pronounced in the field of history. The present day is fast moving, and offers its own fascinating collection of individuals -- so history is neglected. But there is weakness on the supply side, too, as well as the demand side. Specialization and journal articles have become the historian’s stock in trade, not the ambitious broad stories of the past.

The study of history doesn’t so much provide lessons as it alters mindsets. “It is an ancient doctrine that tragedy comes of hubris, but it is none the less true for being ancient, and hubris recurs in every age among those who have forgotten the disasters to which it has always led [p. 207].” Our clever scientists are the slaves of foolish politicians, and so the work of the clever people is heralding the destruction of humanity. If the politicians understood history, they might right the course along which we are hurtling to our doom. They could learn to cooperate more, and to fear and hate less. They could learn the likelihood of the falsity of some of their cherished opinions. This wisdom exists, though it must be made readily available to both the masses and to the politicians. Oh for a Prophet to awaken men to the catastrophe to which they unwittingly sprint, and to point the way to a better path, one that will elevate mankind, not destroy it. But such a Prophet would be liquidated or ignored, so we need something other than prophesy: we need the people and their leaders in the powerful nations to recognize that they must change their course to provide hope for a future. “I believe that if men are to feel this hope with sufficient vividness to give it dynamic power, the awareness of history is one of the greatest forces of which the beneficent appeal must be felt [p. 209].”

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Portraits From Memory, "Chapter" Twenty-Five

“A Plea for Clear Thinking,” pages 185-189

Non-human animals tend to use sounds, not facts, to express emotions, and our political speech recapitulates this atavistic phenomenon. The word "liberty" transmogrifies with every speaker, until “true liberty” as used by Hegel “amounted to little more than gracious permission to obey the police [p. 185].” The word “democracy” has become similarly unhinged, especially as used in the Eastern bloc and much of Asia. The political advantage to twisting terminology comes from the inertia associated with our emotional attachments to words.

Children should be taught to use words with precision, not to shroud them with emotional layers. Trained philosophers already do this, and it protects them against parochialism. At a philosophy conference a few years before World War II, during the casual moments, the international cast of philosophers discussed the world’s pressing political issues – and they did so respectfully and evenhandedly. “If that congress could have taken over the government of the world, and been protected by Martians from the fury of all the fanatics whom they would have outraged, they could have come to just decisions without being compelled to ignore the protests of indignant minorities among themselves [pp. 186-187].” Governments that wanted to could, through education, raise a populace of such fair-minded creatures. But governments choose to promote irrationality and envy instead.

Discussing the mathematical meaning of a word like “infinity” or the philosophical meaning of “truth” tends to take away the political loading – and politicians do not use terms in this way. Woodrow Wilson’s principle of national self-determination was flawed by not defining a “nation.” A definition would have made the meaning clear, but the arbitrary cut-off demanded for clarity would have undermined the power of Wilson’s language.

Philosophy training suggests a tool to achieve the evenhanded approach necessary for clear thinking: recast propositions from concrete to abstract form. Instead of talking about nations such as Britain or India, use placeholders such as A or B. Does the claim you examine survive when expressed in these general terms, irrespective of what country replaces the letter? This technique removes the emotional loading (connected with the specific country) from the investigation of the proposition at-hand. [Russell suggested this technique in Chapter 2 of Unpopular Essays, too.]

As noted in the previous two chapters, our unbiased thinking must be complemented with proper feeling. “Unless a wish for the general welfare exists, no amount of knowledge will inspire action calculated to promote the happiness of mankind [p. 189].” Some people, out of incorrect thinking, work in ways that do not conduce to the general welfare; they will choose to reform their behavior when their knowledge improves. A global educator who clarified those words that now produce passion could end most enmity, most strife. Today’s dispassionate observers, alas, are resisted not only by some natural human propensities, but also by assertive institutionalized intolerance. Precise thinking can be of service, even if, by itself, it cannot induce proper feeling.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Portraits From Memory, "Chapter" Twenty-Four

“A Philosophy for Our Time,” pages 178-184

 Philosophy is more-or-less timeless. Precisely when philosophy is most needed – in ages like the current one when wisdom is in short supply – it is perceived as being of little value. Philosophy is an aid to both our thoughts and our feelings.

Philosophy can undo the native parochialism of our vision – a parochialism of time as well as of place. History can expand our temporal horizons, and astronomy can do likewise for our physical ones. Study helps us recognize the arbitrary nature of our place in space and time. We need to be emancipated from the exigencies of our physical survival before this emancipation of our mind can occur. But when our animal needs are satisfied, the breadth of learning that philosophy offers is a reliable route to an expanded outlook.

Ruminating on the old mind or matter conundrum is the sort of exercise that “stretches the mind and makes it more receptive of new and perhaps fruitful hypotheses [p. 180].” The detachment that is requisite for philosophical thinking allows us to take a detached view of the opinions commonly held by people of our own nation, or religion, or class. We will recognize that these parochial opinions are precisely those that typically lack sufficient supporting evidence. “When one large body of men believes A, and another large body of men believes B, there is a tendency of each body to hate the other for believing anything so obviously absurd [p. 180].” We can avoid this tendency by insisting that our degree of belief in an opinion be no more certain than the evidence allows. Note how anthropology has shown us that societies can survive with practices that, in the absence of the anthropological data, we might suppose to be inconsistent with human nature.

Breadth of thinking is paralleled by breadth of feeling – a point Russell made in the previous chapter. We needn’t feel as much for strangers as we feel for our family, but our concern for family can fuel a more general benevolence. Philosophy can help supplement our existing sympathies, as it supplements our vision. “If your hopes and wishes are confined to yourself, or your family, or your nation, or your class, or the adherents of your creed, you will find that all your affections and all your kindly feelings are paralleled by dislikes and hostile sentiments [p. 182].” The resulting us-versus-them mentality drives the worst problems in the world, the wars and the cruelties; it is what stands in the way of global cooperation, while the threat of global destruction is its offspring. The elimination of wars and poverty is feasible given current technology, if we could extend our sympathies. Our absurd hostility towards others clearly undermines our own self-interest. Philosophy can help us overcome the intellectual components of this misplaced partiality, but not the emotional, fearful ones. “Frightened populations are intolerant populations [p. 183],” despite the irrationality and perversity of intolerant policies.

For real dangers, the impersonal approach that philosophy instills brings the best results. Broad interests and wide sympathies give less scope for fear; we will see ourselves, and others, as part of the river of life, one that will outlast us. [Russell is echoing his thoughts in Chapter 17 of The Conquest of Happiness. ] Constant happiness is beyond our capabilities, “but I do think that the true philosopher is less likely than others are to suffer from baffled despair and fascinated terror in the contemplation of possible disaster [p. 184].”

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Portraits From Memory, "Chapter" Twenty-Three

“Knowledge and Wisdom,” pages 173-177

That knowledge has increased though wisdom has not is a common observation. But what is wisdom? In part, it involves taking a balanced view of an issue, where the weights attached to different elements are appropriate. As professional specialization intensifies, the resulting narrowness of expertise makes this component of wisdom harder to come by. The problem is closely connected with unanticipated and undesirable consequences, as when inquiry into the nature of the atom eventually gave lunatics the power to destroy humanity. Wisdom likewise requires that breadth of knowledge be matched by breadth of feeling, so that understanding and empathy extends beyond our own narrow (or national) circle.

Private relations need wisdom as much as public affairs do. People can be at odds with each other through a version of what now [i.e. 2012] we would term the fundamental attribution error. Convincing personal enemies that their rivals are not particularly wicked, though they may seem so, would lead to an uptick in wisdom.

“I think the essence of wisdom is emancipation, as far as possible, from the tyranny of the here and the now [p. 175].” We start as fully solipsistic infants, and maturity (and wisdom) broadens our horizons. We can learn about things that are remote, and wisdom requires that we do so, and that we then give remote effects sufficient weight in our decision making. The evolution towards impartiality is simultaneously the path of wisdom. This type of wisdom can and should be taught. Loving our neighbor as ourselves is a step in the right direction, though we must extend the meaning of neighbor to Communist or some other detested type.

But what if those whom we hate are evil doers? Must we love them and allow them to threaten us? No. But if we want our resistance to be effective and beneficial, it “should be combined with the greatest degree of understanding and the smallest degree of force that is compatible with the survival of the good things that we wish to preserve [p. 176].” Great leaders like Elizabeth I and Abraham Lincoln have possessed these elements of wisdom, and not been in thrall to the common errors of their times.

The dire consequences (visited upon their possessors) of hate and tunnel vision should be imparted in the course of education. While specialized skills need to be taught, and moral education will not feature in this pragmatic education, nonetheless, the broader context in which specialization operates needs to be conveyed. The increasing power of what can be accomplished (or destroyed) via specialization puts a premium on instilling wisdom.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Portraits From Memory, "Chapter" Twenty-Two

“The Cult of ‘Common Usage,’” pages 166-172

“The most influential school of philosophy in Britain at the present day maintains a certain linguistic doctrine to which I am unable to subscribe [p. 166].” That doctrine is that no special terminology is requisite for philosophical argumentation. Russell objects to the cult of common usage on numerous grounds, including that it inculcates self-righteousness in those who preach it.

Russell concocts a little story in which working class Brits employ words like “mental” and “chronic,” to indicate that philosophers do indeed attach different meanings to these terms: the attachment to common usage is only an attachment to just the right amount of pretentiousness, not too little or too much. Further, the attachment offers philosophers an excuse, though an untenable one, for failing to understand mathematics and science.

The superiority of common sense certainly has not been borne out by history – the once common disbelief in the rotation of the earth is one case in point. Did common sense cease being fallible at some point? Philosophers devote themselves to trivial issues when they worry about precisely what people mean when they utter silly phrases. We needn’t give up loose language for the purposes of everyday life, such as when we talk of the sun rising, but we shouldn’t expect scientists to indulge in the same liberality. Common sense cannot help us parse the legitimate and interesting question “What is meant by the word ‘word’ [p. 170]?” And the difficulties of what it means, precisely, when we see something – an issue explicated in the preceding chapter – indicates the need for philosophers to employ terms in a much more exacting style than common usage allows.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Portraits From Memory, "Chapter" Twenty-One

“Mind and Matter,” pages 145-165

Happy 140th Birthday to Him Whom We Read!

[When I embarked on Reading Bertrand Russell (precisely five years ago) I noted that I was not much interested in Russell’s philosophical work; this chapter, alas, falls within that domain. (Nonetheless, I remain comforted by the fact that I enjoyed providing a summentary to Human Society in Ethics and Politics – though maybe that enjoyment is only in retrospect?) So this chapter remains largely beyond my ken, and I can’t even summon up guilty feelings about not overcoming my ignorance. Onwards anyway, dear reader, justly forewarned, I hope, of the more-than-usual inadequacy of what follows. This “Mind and Matter” chapter, like its predecessor, is quite lengthy, but I’ll connect with it in a single post this time.]

The understanding that the world is divided into two spheres, mind and matter, derives from Plato and religion. Nonetheless, that understanding is challenged by modern science. Curiously, many physicists are beginning to see ideal forms everywhere, whereas psychologists see matter underlying mind. “The truth is, of course, that mind and matter are, alike, illusions [p. 145].” People who specialize in one area recognize that their own object of study is an illusion, but suspect that there is substance in the other realm.

The Cartesians believed that the brain and mind were separate, running in parallel (and hence together), but not directly connected. Now it seems that the brain and the mind are connected. Nonetheless, in practical matters, there remain two schools of thought, one stressing physical causes of mental processes, and the other psychological causes largely divorced from any physical substrate. “If you have a nightmare, the one school will say that it is because you ate too much lobster salad, and the other that it is because you are unconsciously in love with your mother [p. 146].” Why not take a pragmatic approach, and adopt whatever view that happens to work best, which can differ across domains?

Russell engages with Descartes’s famous Cogito Ergo Sum and the line that succeeds it (“I am a thing that thinks”), finding them full of error. Speech asserting existence is misguided. What is sensible is to say that the word denoting the thing, such as “I,” really denotes something, unlike, for instance, the word “Hamlet”. The notion that “I am a thing” implicitly assumes that there is a substantive I, as a lasting entity in a changing environment. But Descartes, to himself, is not such an entity. “Descartes to himself should have appeared as a series of events, each of which might be called a thought, provided that word is liberally interpreted [p. 148].” Descartes’s mind is this series of thoughts, which does not make his mind a separate entity, and Descartes is the name of this series.

Descartes’s mind is his alone, not accessible by others. What of this series of thoughts that constitute Descartes? Before we get to thoughts, we should deal with sensations and perceptions. People can be exposed to the seemingly identical stimulus, but experience it differently, due to their own past experiences. People who grew up, like Russell, without radios or gramophones, visualize a pianist’s hands at work when they hear piano music – but not so for those of a more recent generation. The element of the experience that does not depend on past experiences is the “sensation,” while the “perception” comprises the sensation plus the unavoidable, historically-contingent associations. The perception is the whole experience, which we can identify without the aid of theoretical ponderings.

My seeing of a chair is a mental object, created when light reflects off of the chair into my eye, leaving a mental impression. I can infer, when seeing a chair, that a chair is there even when I am not seeing it – but this is an inference, not a direct perception. “[T]he physical world of my everyday experience is a part of my mental life [p. 152].” In this respect, it is no more real than my dreams, though my mental world is unquestionable. The actual physical world is solid, but questionable – my inferences of its existence are potentially fallacious.

Blocks, stones, and other senseless things don’t have experiences in the same way as sentient beings do. “What characterizes experience is the influence of past occurrences on present reactions [p. 153].” A man working in a ticket office will react to various stimuli from customers variously, based on his experience; a ticket machine lacks that ability to alter behavior based on recollections of past encounters. Memory is the key component of mind. Our intellect involves recalling associations – the same principle that underlies the practice of teaching bears to dance. Thinking stems from a sort of reinforcement of pathways in the brain, like water over time creating a channel in a riverbed. Mind melds into matter, and the quantum view of matter is that it melds into something not so substantial, transitions between states. A chair today might be the same chair tomorrow in classical physics, but not in quantum physics. You can never sit in the same chair twice, and (page 161) a person today is a different person tomorrow. Both mind and matter are series of events.

We don’t know very much about the events that constitute matter, only some of the physical structures we can see or otherwise perceive. But I [Russell] hypothesize “that the events that make a living brain are actually identical with those that make the corresponding mind [p. 158].” Physical objects (like brains!) only are revealed to me as mental impressions. Brains and minds comprise essentially the same events, though grouped differently. It is like individuals sorted alphabetically or sorted by address: they are the same individuals in either case. Psychology and physics look at identical events, mental impressions, differently. This hypothesis requires that memories and other elements of mental life must have some physical basis in the brain. Whether we think of the mind as relying on the brain, or vice versa, depends upon our purposes and knowledge.

The notion that the world consists of events goes back to Heraclitus; the idea that physical objects, or the part of them we perceive, are mental images derives from Berkeley via Hume. Different viewers perceive objects differently, and no person has a view that captures what they think they are seeing, the unadorned essence of the object.

It is logically possible that there is no physical world separate from my mental sensations, but then it is similarly possible that my own remembered past is illusory. Nevertheless, everyone infers that matter exists and that events outside of one’s experience exist, even though, strictly speaking, those inferences go beyond what is provable. A psychologist looking at a patient’s brain surely doesn’t see the person’s mind, the person’s thoughts, but doesn’t really see the brain, either; rather, the psychologist is having his own mental events connected (via optic nerves and photons) with the patient’s brain. Russell upset philosophers by pointing out that their thoughts were all in their heads. “With one voice they assured me that they had no thoughts in their heads whatever, but politeness forbids me to accept this assurance [p. 163].”

An event can be simultaneously mental and material, involve a causal chain associated with physics while also involving a causal chain associated with psychology. There is no dilemma, no unavoidable conflict between mind and matter. “The relations of mind and matter have puzzled people for a long time, but if I am right they need puzzle people no longer [p. 165].”

Monday, May 14, 2012

Portraits From Memory, "Chapter" Twenty, Part Two

[For the summentary of Part One of this chapter, "John Stuart Mill," click here.]

“With Mill’s values, I for my part find myself in complete agreement [p. 133].” Individual liberty should be central to morality, though the term “liberty” has been expropriated by reactionary forces. The main culprit is Marx, “who substituted Prussian discipline for freedom as both the means and the end of revolutionary action [p. 134].” Marxian notions met with success in part thanks to the growth in large organizations, which allow greater control over people’s lives. Look at how the individualistic Western pioneers of America found themselves at the mercy of railroads. The power of distant governments and markets does not preclude intellectual liberty, but it does massively constrain economic liberty. The peasants in Communist countries feel the yoke of state power to a degree never imagined by their forebears in serfdom. “The totalitarian State is the last term of organization, the goal toward which, if we are not careful, we shall find all developed countries tending [p. 136].” A truly democratic State might be more favorable to liberty than is the power of capitalists, but really existing Communism is much, much worse. And even in democratic countries, the police are repressive and dissenters are marginalized.

Were Mill to undertake the writing of On Liberty today, his opinions on the benefits of liberty would not need to be altered. But Mill might look at the main threats to liberty as arising from two sources, society’s attempt to impose its moral code and the existence of unjust power. Mill himself gives several examples of the attempt to impose morality. Recent cases that Mill would condemn are the suppression of so-called obscenity and the criminalization of homosexuality. [In the case of obscenity, Russell writes: “I cannot think that the feeling of shock which an elderly man experiences on being brought in contact with something to which he is not accustomed is a sufficient basis for an accusation of crime [p. 139].”] If we still believed that homosexual relations would bring about Divine retribution on whole cities, we would have grounds to suppress it, but we cannot criminalize consensual adult homosexual acts just because we find them sinful. [This discussion echoes a point Russell made about beliefs concerning witches in Human Society in Ethics and Politics.]

The post-Enlightenment world has been concerned with the unjust power of monarchs, religious authorities, and empires. The new danger comes from bureaucrats: look at what happened to independent labor unions in Russia when capitalists were replaced with the State. The monopoly of power in the State is worse than having rival blocks of power -- unions and capitalists -- even though the competitive arrangement involves some restrictions on liberty, too.

While Mill insisted on the necessity of educating children (even over parental objections), he didn’t say much about how the educating should proceed. Presumably Mill would want to make sure that children were given the means to learn about and develop their own opinions on important matters, so that they would be poised to use well their adult freedom to act. But today’s approach to education valorizes making the right choice by society’s lights, as opposed to celebrating the freedom to choose (which might result in wrong choices). This commitment to straitjacketing choice is shared by Communist and Catholic schools, as well as by state schools in many places. [Russell is re-iterating points he has made in Unpopular Essays and Education and the Good Life.] “Its purpose is to produce mental slaves, who have heard only one side on all the burning questions of the day and have been inspired with feelings of horror toward the other side [p. 142].” But different nations instill different dogmas in their drones, who will turn into reliable soldiers and persecutors when summoned. If no one had ever thought of state education, the world might have been better off.

Russell again makes the economist’s distinction between rival and non-rival goods, using a poem as an example of a non-rival good. Rival goods, chiefly of the material ilk, need to be justly distributed if democracy is to be preserved against a man on horseback. But perfect liberty will not secure a just distribution, and instead will lead to the man on horseback. Non-rival goods, however, chiefly those in the intellectual sphere, can be consumed by anyone and everyone, simultaneously. “There is not, therefore, any prima-facie case for restrictions of liberty in this sphere [p. 143].” Government lacks the standing to control ideas or art or music. Books cannot be censored; let a hundred publishers bloom. Requiring imprimatur before publishing brings on intellectual degradation of the sort that Stalin’s control of music brought to Russian rhythm.

Russell will not grant Mill the mantle of a great philosopher; his ideas were derivative of Hume, Bentham, and James Mill. The severity of Bentham and James Mill was advantageously softened in John Stuart Mill through Romantics such as Coleridge and Carlyle, and through Harriet Taylor. Mill nonetheless (and again, advantageously) avoided the excesses of the Romantics. His moral standing was majestic. Mill was fair though pointed when engaged in controversy.

The world is a better place for Mill’s contributions, especially his advocacy for women’s rights and liberty. “The present world would both astonish and horrify him; but it would be better than it is, if his ethical principles were more respected [p. 144].”

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Portraits From Memory, "Chapter" Twenty, Part One

John Stuart Mill, pages 122-144

The chapter devoted to Bertie’s godfather appears to be the longest in Portraits From Memory. At any rate, it is sufficiently long that the summentary will be divided into two parts, this being the first...

Russell believes that Mill’s intellect was overrated by his contemporaries, while Mill’s morality really was first-rate. His intellect was hampered by being erected on the unsturdy foundations of his father’s views, and its solidity was not enhanced by the renovations attributable to Mill’s wife Harriet and Thomas Carlyle. The simplistic story is that Harriet provided the morals and James Mill provided the intellect. “The amalgam which resulted was practically beneficent, but theoretically somewhat incoherent [p. 123].”

Russell follows by identifying many shortcomings in Mill’s System of Logic. Russell indicates (p. 124) that he read the Logic at the age of eighteen, and even at that time, he had trouble accepting the notion that the authority of induction implied that arithmetic sums were no more true than statements such as “all swans are white.” But Mill needed what was effectively unavailable to him, Boole and modern logic. Mill did not let mathematics permeate his thinking, and hence did not gravitate to a probabilistic view of causation. Mill’s inductive view of causation generally is wrong: “all the sheep that Kant ever saw were within ten miles of Königsberg, but he felt no inclination to induce that all sheep were within ten miles of Königsberg [p. 126].”

Surprisingly, Mill’s thought does not seem to be much influenced by Darwin, despite Mill’s close attention to Spencer. Mill’s neglect occurs not only in later editions of the Logic, but also in his religion essays. [Is Russell being unfair? At the end of Part One of the essay "Theism," Mill acknowledges evolution as a recent alternative to intelligent design. His conclusion is basically that it is too soon to tell whether the theory of evolution will become sufficiently well-established to offer a convincing refutation of intelligent design: “Of this theory [evolution] when pushed to this extreme point, all that can now be said is that it is not so absurd as it looks, and that the analogies which have been discovered in experience, favourable to its possibility, far exceed what any one could have supposed beforehand. Whether it will ever be possible to say more than this, is at present uncertain. The theory if admitted would be in no way whatever inconsistent with Creation. But it must be acknowledged that it would greatly attenuate the evidence for it.” Mill’s Essays on Religion are quite skeptical, and it is reasonable that he offer the best case for theism – and hence not be too quick in embracing evolution – in developing his argument. Indeed, I think Russell is factually wrong when he says that Mill did not discuss Darwin’s explanation for species adaptation in the religion essays; Mill’s discussion takes place in the paragraph preceding the passage quoted above.] Mill’s sort of natural, subconscious mind followed his father James Mill, and viewed man as a rational creature, different from all the other animals.

Mill’s Principles of Political Economy was first published in 1848, but subsequent editions took a much softer line towards socialism, thanks to the influence of Mrs. Taylor, Mill’s future wife. [Russell indicates that he is drawing upon a Mill biography by Packe which was published in 1954. I have read the Packe book, and, somehow, learning that Bertie read it, too, has given me pleasure.] The softer line was in keeping with Mill’s predispositions, however – Mrs. Taylor let those predispositions overcome the received political economy canon. Mill’s hopeful vision of (non-Marxist) socialism involves production being organized by worker cooperatives: no state ownership of the means of production for Mill. Mill’s distrust of the state ran too deep. Mill was sadly wrong in his belief that governmental interference with human action would diminish. People (at least pre-Orwell) tend to predict that the world will unfold as they hope. The only accurate prognosticator from the nineteenth century, therefore, was Nietzsche, because he actually wished for the awfulness that the twentieth century produced.

J. S. Mill did not fully account for the increasing power of large organizations. He did not want the government to run the schools, though he thought that poor kids should receive a publicly subsidized education. “He never realized that, so far as elementary education is concerned, the only important alternative to the State is the Church, which he would hardly have preferred [p. 129].” Mill was less appreciative of Communism (abolition of private property) than he was of Socialism (means of production publicly owned), but he thought Communism would be preferable to the deformed capitalism of his time. A reasonable system of private property – one that did not allocate rewards as a decreasing function of work – presumably would be preferred to communism, however. As far as we know, Mill never heard of Marx, but Marx turned out to wield more influence than any of Mill’s other contemporaries.

Like Mill’s System of Logic, his Principles of Political Economy has been superseded. Mill proved, in both instances, a little too accepting of received doctrines that did not engender overt harm. But Mill’s On Liberty and On the Subjection of Women remain important. [I have never seen The Subjection of Women with the “On” in the title that Russell lends it.] The world has moved away from the message of On Liberty, but the ideas in The Subjection of Women have found more fertile ground. Nonetheless, “[i]t is a disgrace to both men and women that the world should have had to wait so long for champions of women’s equality [p. 131].” Those few voices that supported female emancipation were laughed off the stage, until just shortly before they prevailed. Russell himself met with more energetic opposition to his public support for women’s suffrage before World War I than he received for his public pacifism during World War I. The quick, near-global embrace of women’s rights owes something to industrialization, which undermined the advantage to muscularity in the productive realm. (Indeed, the focus on industry has gone too far, neglecting the biology of humans.) The success of female emancipation also owes something to the decline of hereditary rule: “Napoleon wanted his son to succeed him. Lenin, Stalin and Hitler had no such desire [p. 132].” [What would Bertie say about the Kim dynasty in North Korea?]

On Liberty’s continuing relevance reflects, alas, the decline in individual liberty in the past century. Mill complained about the lack of freedom in Russia, but Russia has become markedly less free in the interim. Shortly after the 1859 publication of On Liberty, freedom was on the march, with the extirpation of slavery in the US, the end of the Napoleon III era in France, and the extension of (male) suffrage in Germany. Mill’s optimism, subsequently justified by such enhancements to liberty, proved less appropriate in the longer term.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Portraits From Memory, "Chapter" Nineteen

“Lord John Russell,” pages 117-121

Bertie’s granddad was born in 1792, as the French monarchy fell. As an MP, John Russell opposed using military force to counter Napoleon’s post-Elba activity, but his views did not carry the day. The political battle that John did win was the Reform Act of 1832, which moved Britain on a course towards full democracy. Bertie finds his granddad’s subsequent stints as Prime Minister to be less momentous. “In his later years he was only moderately liberal, except in one respect, and that was his hatred of religious disabilities [p. 118].” Bertie recalls a gathering shortly before his grandfather’s death (and hence, some 78 years prior to the publication of Portraits From Memory!) to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of John Russell’s first major political victory, winning the repeal of the religious test for office holders and MPs. Bertie traces his own commitment to civil and religious liberties to such events.

“In public life he [Bertie’s granddad] was often accused of coldness, but at home he was warm and affectionate and kindly in the highest degree [p. 119].” He could deliver speeches in French, Italian, and Spanish; he loved Don Quixote, and was honored by the Italians for his efforts on behalf of Italian unity. His passion for liberty drew from classical, not contemporary sources; it was the same romantic spirit that impelled Byron’s fight for Greek independence. He was nourished on literature and poetry, and eschewed the cold economic realism now in fashion. Edmund Cartwright, the inventor of the power loom, tutored John Russell when he was growing up, but Bertie’s granddad didn’t even know that Cartwright had created one of the chief machines for spurring the Industrial Revolution; rather, he admired Cartwright “for his elegant Latinity and for the elevation of his moral sentiments, as well as for the fact that he was the brother of a famous radical agitator [p. 120].” 

Democracy was a goal for John Russell, but he was content to move there gradually, and tacitly believed that aristocratic Whig families like his would chart the course.

Bertie lived with John Russell in Pembroke Lodge. Many famous personages and foreign diplomats came through its doors; Bertie met Queen Victoria there. “Every corner of the house was associated with some nineteenth-century event or institution which now seems as remotely historical as the dodo [p. 121].” All has changed, despite the conviction then held at Pembroke Lodge that the only change the world would see would be the gradual spread of British-style government. Bertie’s granddad would be shocked to learn of the disasters that the world fell into. How quickly longstanding political states and traditions, no longer appropriate for their times, can be swept off the stage! Such revolutions can be disheartening, but they are full of promise for creative thinkers.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Portraits From Memory, End of the Second Period

The preceding nine chapters comprise the “Portraits from Memory” subsection of the book, so perhaps it is an appropriate time for our second (of two) intervals, even though in terms of length, there is still half of the book to go. (Here's the report from the first interval.) Despite some negative judgments that are sprinkled within most of the short biographical pieces – such as the view of Santayana as an enemy to progress – Russell’s Portraits generally are admiring: it is Lawrence alone who emerges as “a positive force for evil [p. 112].” Indeed, Lawrence and Conrad turn out to be opposites for Bertie: superficially, Conrad and Bertie were quite different, but deep down, they were of a piece. Bertie and Lawrence, alternatively, were superficially in agreement, while fundamentally at odds or even at war. But Bertie cannot help but to admire independence of mind, whether it arises in Cambridge Dons, George Bernard Shaw, or H. G. Wells.

The spiritual bond between Joseph Conrad and Bertie is perhaps what I found most surprising in the Portraits. My untutored (indeed, almost completely uninformed) view of Conrad would not have suggested that he and Russell were soul mates. The praise of Moore, Conrad, and Whitehead joins the previous admiration for Wittgenstein as tributes that make me want to know more about the men who inspired them.

One of the implicit messages that comes through is how typical short lifespans were in Bertie’s era – thanks be that Bertie himself was a notable exception. What if other members of Russell’s generation had Bertie-like lifespans? How much more might we have gotten from Keynes, Strachey, and even that force for evil, Lawrence? Imagine Keynes and Strachey, for instance, taking public positions on the Vietnam War – both were considerably younger than Russell. Because of their relatively short lifespans, however, they (particularly Strachey) seem as if they are part of the olden days, while Bertie seems (and is) almost like one of our contemporaries.

The next chapter, however, deals with someone whom Bertie knew, and who himself knew Napoleon. How close we are to those olden days.