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].”