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.

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