Written 20 June 2014
This from a reader:
In one portion of Grace Boey's interview of Peter Unger, Unger discusses what Russell had to say about the value of philosophy, and I was a bit taken aback because that particular quotation by Russell resonates with me a lot, and Unger's swift dismissal of it as garbage left me almost wounded.What Unger appears to be saying is that claims about the value of philosophy are either quasi-mystical nonsense, or these are claims which can be empirically tested, and therefore should not be assumed a priori. We can only say philosophy has value if we take a bunch of philosophy students, measure parameters such as their dogmatism, creativity, rationality etc at the start and then at the end when they graduate, see if learning philosophy has improved these parameters, and whether this improvement is more than the graduates of other subjects like psychology and literature. Only then we can say that there is value in studying philosophy.
Your thoughts appreciated.
This quote is from a small book that Bertrand Russell wrote, from 1912, which is still used as a textbook today: a little book called The Problems of Philosophy. He talks here about the value of philosophy:
Thus, to sum up our discussion of the value of philosophy; Philosophy is to be studied, not for the sake of any definite answers to its questions, since no definite answers can, as a rule, be known to be true, but rather for the sake of the questions themselves. Because these questions enlarge our conception of what is possible, enrich our intellectual imagination and diminish the dogmatic assurance which closes the mind against speculation; but above all that because, through the greatness of the universe which philosophy contemplates, the mind also is rendered great, and becomes capable of that union with the universe which constitutes its highest good.
The second part, after the ‘above all’ seems like complete nonsense. What the heck does all that mean? It’s mystical nonsense, no? This from one of the two founders of modern logic, second only to Gottlob Frege in laying down the foundations of symbolic and mathematical logic.
Let’s go to the first part, before the ‘above all’. He says that these questions, and not questions about, say, chemistry, or ornothology, enlarge your conception of what is possible. I hardly even know what that means. But he goes on and says things which are less hard to understand, like, it enriches your intellectual imagination. And a second thing it does, which I take to be distinct, is it diminishes your dogmatic assurance.
These are things that can be tested for, as I said before! Whether it’s a treatment effect, or a selection effect. There are tests for how creative people are, or how dogmatic they are. You test them, at the end, the day after they graduate. And you see whether this is true.
Bertrand Russell never even bothers to think about whether, or what, these things might have to do with any test you can give to human people, or what’s going on. It’s so full of nonsense, the guy was always full of nonsense. He read up on relativity theory, but you would think he would think of some psychological testing that had some bearing on the smoke he was blowing. He never gave it a thought.
In dismissing mysticism as nonsense, Unger merely advertises his own ignorance and spiritual vacancy and falls to the tabloid level of an Ayn Rand who displays no more understanding of mysticism than he does. Mysticism is a vast field of ancient yet ongoing human experience and endeavor and one that earlier American philosophers such as Josiah Royce, William James, and William Ernest Hocking, to mention just three philosophers of high distinction, took very seriously indeed. See, respectively, The World and the Individual, First Series, 1899, lectures II, IV, and V; The Varieties of Religious Experience, 1902, lectures XVI and XVII; Types of Philosophy, 1929, chapters 30, 31, 32, 33. It is worth noting that all three luminaries were professors at Harvard University.
In those days Harvard was still far from the over-specialization and hyper-professionalization of philosophy that breeds people like Peter Unger, who though "terribly" clever -- to use one of his favorite adjectives -- appear to view philosophy as a highly rarefied academic game without roots in, or anything to say about, one's life as an "existing individual" (phrase from Kierkegaard, but I am thinking of all the existentialists, as well as Augustine, Pascal, the Stoics, the ancient Skeptics, and indeed all philosophers from Plato to Aquinas to Kant and beyond for whom philosophy has something to do with the search for wisdom).
The institutionalization of philosophy in the 20th century, though not without some benefits, has led to the following. Empty gamesmanship without existential anchorage. Hypertrophy of the critical and analytic faculty with concomitant atrophy of the intuitive faculty. Philistinic dismissal of whole realms of human experience and endeavor. Technicality and specialization taken to absurd lengths not justified by any actual results. (If extreme specialization and narrowing of focus led to consensus among competent practitioners, then that might count as a justification for the specialization. But it hasn't and it doesn't. See here.)
Bertrand Russell, you will recall, published a collection of essays in October 1910 that in the second edition of December 1917 was given the title Mysticism and Logic. The lead essay, "Mysticism and Logic," which originally appeared in the Hibbert Journal of July 1914, displays a serious engagement with what Unger the philistine dismisses as "complete nonsense." What Russell writes about mysticism is penetrating enough to suggest that he may have had some mystical experiences of his own. In the end Russell rejects the four main tenets that he takes as definitive of mysticism, but his rejection is reasoned and respectful. He grants that "there is an element of wisdom to be learned from the mystical way of feeling, which does not seem to be attainable in any other way." (p. 11)
But of course that essay dates from the days of our grandfathers and great grandfathers. Times have changed, and in philosophy not for the better. The analytic philosophy that Russell did so much to promote has become sterile and ingrown and largely irrelevant to the wider culture. There are of course exceptions, Thomas Nagel being one of them.
There is a lot more to be said. But for now I will simply oppose to Unger's nauseating view the following quotations:
The absolute things, the last things, the overlapping things, are the truly philosophic concerns; all superior minds feel seriously about them, and the mind with the shortest views is simply the mind of the more shallow man. (William James, Pragmatism, Harvard UP, 1975, p. 56)
Maximae res, cum parvis quaeruntur, magnos eos solent efficere.
Matters of the greatest importance, when they are investigated by little men, tend to make those men great. (Augustine, Contra Academicos 1. 2. 6.)
See here for a different critical response to Unger.
Boey's interview is here.