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].”

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