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 d├ętente, 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.