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.

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