...and more. Too many unheralded nonacademics on parade, in AtP, to name in the subject line. Carlin Romano's implicit invitation, in case you've forgotten: join the parade.
Oxbridge superstars Bertrand Russell (Cambridge) and A.J. Ayer (Oxford) are the classic 20th century British philosophers at the head of the procession in CoPhi today (Russell was actually born in the 1870s and made it to nearly the century mark). We'll squeeze in another Cambridge don, Frank Ramsey, if time allows.
That's a small philosophy pun, PB's Ramsey expert Hugh Mellor is also an expert on time. And it's in marginally bad taste too, given that poor Ramsey's un-Russellian time was tragically short: he lived only to age 26. But as Mellor says, he accomplished far more than most philosophers manage in that fraction of a lifetime, including the "redundancy" theory of truth that (ironically, paradoxically!) implies the gratuity of theories of truth without disavowing truth's centrality to philosophy.
Hugh Mellor on time (he says relax, it’s not “tensed”).... Russell @dawn... Russell... Ayer... Logicomix]
Then, another passel of Americans from AtP, including a linguist-philosopher duo on the power of metaphor, a transplanted Anglo-Manhattanite neurologist, and a Unitarian guru. We Yanks win, don't we? -if only by the numbers.
So much has been said about Russell, and by him. The truth question was pretty cut-and-dried, he thought, like religion and the pragmatic approach in general.
There isn’t a practical reason for believing what isn’t true. If it’s true you should believe it, if it isn’t you shouldn't… it’s dishonesty and intellectual treachery to hold a belief because you think it’s useful and not because you think it’s true.
The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, but wiser men so full of doubts.
And if there were a God, I think it very unlikely that He would have such an uneasy vanity as to be offended by those who doubt His existence.
Fear is the main source of superstition, and one of the main sources of cruelty. To conquer fear is the beginning of wisdom.
Do you think that, if you were granted omnipotence and omniscience and millions of years in which to perfect your world, you could produce nothing better than the Ku Klux Klan or the Fascists? [Why I Am Not a Christian... More Russell]
Clearly, "for Russell there was no chance of God stepping in to save humanity." The concept of an Afterlife is, to coin a phrase, "nonsense." We must save ourselves. (As Carl Sagan would later say, there's no sign of help coming from anywhere "out there" to rescue us.)
Russell said family friend and "godfather" J.S. Mill provided a satisfactory answer to his own early childhood query, posed by so many of us: "What caused God?" If anything in the universe can exist without a cause, why can't the universe itself?
Having settled the question of God to his own satisfaction, he turned full attention to the philosophy of logic and mathematics, to paradox, to set theory, and other conceptual conundra. If something is false when it's true ("This sentence is false" etc.), then it's back to the drawing board for the logicians. It's not even a close shave. (Yes, that's another marginal philosophy pun- this time alluding to Russell's paradox of the barber who shaves only those who shave themselves.) As for the extent of my own interest in set theory and its ilk, I think young Ramsey said it best: "Suppose a contradiction were to be found in the axioms of set theory. Do you seriously believe that a bridge would fall down?" No I do not.
"How can we talk meaningfully about non-existent things?" That's never really hung me up, nor anyone who appreciates good literature. Either young Russell was not a big reader of fiction, or maybe he thought he had to justify his reading. I'm glad he cared about "the present king of France," but I frankly could care less.
Ayer, by the way, apparently had a Near Death Experience of his own, in his old age. Interesting, in light of his youthful philosophy as exposited in Language, Truth, and Logic, "in every sense" (he admitted while still a relatively young man) "a young man's book," according to which unverifiable statements are meaningless nonsense.
Old Ayer claimed his premature dalliance with death in no way impinged on his atheism. But an acquaintance reported that “He became so much nicer after he died… not nearly so boastful. He took an interest in other people.” But again, Freddie denied that the experience made him “religious.” [continues here]
…a sentence is factually significant to any given person, if, and only if, he knows how to verify the proposition which it purports to express — that is, if he knows what observations would lead him, under certain conditions, to accept the proposition as being true, or reject it as being false.
“Stealing money is wrong” has no factual meaning — that is, expresses no proposition which can be either true or false. It is as if I had written “Stealing money!!
No moral system can rest solely on authority. [Or as Russell said: nothing externally imposed can be of any value.]
There is philosophy, which is about conceptual analysis — about the meaning of what we say — and there is all of this … all of life.
And with that last insight the former Wykeham Professor of Logic may at last have hit on a profound truth far beyond formal language and pedantic logic. Ayer's greatest moment, for my money:
One of the last of the many legendary contests won by the British philosopher A. J. Ayer was his encounter with Mike Tyson in 1987... Ayer -- small, frail, slight as a sparrow and then 77 years old -- was entertaining a group of models at a New York party when a girl ran in screaming that her friend was being assaulted in a bedroom. The parties involved turned out to be Tyson and Naomi Campbell. ''Do you know who [the bleep] I am?'' Tyson asked in disbelief when Ayer urged him to desist: ''I'm the heavyweight champion of the world.'' ''And I am the former Wykeham professor of logic,'' Ayer answered politely. ''We are both pre-eminent in our field. I suggest that we talk about this like rational men.'' nyt
My religion is nature. That’s what arouses those feelings of wonder and mysticism and gratitude in me.
If a man has lost a leg or an eye, he knows he has lost a leg or an eye; but if he has lost a self—himself—he cannot know it, because he is no longer there to know it.
Language, that most human invention, can enable what, in principle, should not be possible. It can allow all of us, even the congenitally blind, to see with another person’s eyes. [Young Ayer, later visions notwithstanding, couldn't see this.]
In examining disease, we gain wisdom about anatomy and physiology and biology. In examining the person with disease, we gain wisdom about life.