Delight Springs

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Russell, Ayer, Sartre, de Beauvoir, Camus, AND Cosmopolitanism

Today in CoPhi we begin with a closer look at Bertrand Russell, whose historical opinions we've been noting all semester. But we've outrun his his 1945 History, which gives generous but unsympathetic late chapters to William James ("almost universally beloved") and John Dewey ("leading living philosopher in America") before concluding with a few cursory words on the logical analysis of Cantor and Frege. He says nothing of the Existentialists or then-young A.J. Ayer.

Russell's youthful encounter with J.S. Mill led him to a pivotal liberating insight.
I for a long time accepted the argument of the First Cause, until one day at the age of eighteen I read Mill's Autobiography, and I there found this sentence: "My father taught me that the question 'Who made me?' cannot be answered, since it immediately suggests the further question `Who made god?'" That very simple sentence showed me, as I still think, the fallacy in the argument of the First Cause. If everything must have a cause, then God must have a cause. If there can be anything without a cause, it may just as well be the world as God, so that there cannot be any validity in that argument. It is exactly of the same nature as the Hindu's view, that the world rested upon an elephant and the elephant rested upon a tortoise; and when they said, "How about the tortoise?" the Indian said, "Suppose we change the subject." The argument is really no better than that. Why I Am Not a Christian
We  should resolve, he decided, "to understand the actual world as it is, not as we should wish it to be... Fear is the main source of superstition, and one of the main sources of cruelty. To conquer fear is the beginning of wisdom.”  Mature wisdom then comes when we apply ourselves to building on that understanding, and seeing if we can either construct steps to reach our castles in the sky (in Thoreau's metaphor) or build new castles where we stand. Why else was old Russell in the streets protesting nuclear proliferatrion and Vietnam?

“To teach how to live without certainty, and yet without being paralyzed by hesitation, is perhaps the chief thing that philosophy, in our age, can still do for those who study it... The value of philosophy is, in fact, to be sought largely in its very uncertainty..." That's the state of mind that best stimulates curiosity and creativity, and opens us to consider new possibilities. "Philosophy, though unable to tell us with certainty what is the true answer to the doubts which it raises, is able to suggest many possibilities which enlarge our thoughts and free them from the tyranny of custom."

Russell also said “The fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.” And, “In all affairs it's a healthy thing now and then to hang a question mark on the things you have long taken for granted.” And, “Most people would sooner die than think; in fact, they do so... It has been said that man is a rational animal. All my life I have been searching for evidence which could support this.”

Russell's china teapot is one of his more improbable enduring images. "If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion..." You can probably guess where he's going with that teapot.

Russell's paradoxical barber, fascinated with language and its self-referential confusions, was less obviously engaged in constructive world-making. But he inspired A.J. Ayer and the logical positivists, convinced that progress in philosophy and in life required the dismantling of philosophy's unverifiable traditional ambitions as so much literal nonsense. Language, Truth and Logic was a young man's book. Old Ayer had to nearly choke to death on his salmon to acquire mature wisdom. He also courted a near death  experience with the ear-nibbling prizefighter Mike Tyson. ("Wickedest Man in Oxford")

The Existentialists, rallying under Jean Paul Sartre's anti-essentialist banner, warned against "bad faith" but didn't explain precisely how people who love their work - philosophers included - can avoid being defined or inauthenticated by it. Sartre's advice to the student who didn't know whether to join the Resistance, to just choose, was frustrating. But he'd say that's life.

Simone de Beauvoir was a bit more helpful. She said women are made, not born, but have been too accepting of the constructed gender constraints imposed by men. “Man is defined as a human being and a woman as a female — whenever she behaves as a human being she is said to imitate the male.” They can make a different plan. The present generation is testing the limits of reconstruction, as women and men explore the possibilities of self-discovery. We can all learn to persist and persevere against arbitrary silencing and suppression. “In itself, homosexuality is as limiting as heterosexuality: the ideal should be to be capable of loving a woman or a man; either, a human being, without feeling fear, restraint, or obligation.”

“Few tasks are more like the torture of Sisyphus than housework, with its endless repetition: the clean becomes soiled, the soiled is made clean, over and over, day after day.” So, is it existentially inauthentic to hire a housekeeper? I can't imagine my wife happy without her.

Albert Camus said there's no final escape from the absurdities of life, but we can learn to live with them. We must imagine Sisyphus happy. Camus and his generation successfully pushed back against the rock that was the Reich. He was awarded a Nobel. And then he died behind the wheel.

“You will never be happy if you continue to search for what happiness consists of. You will never live if you are looking for the meaning of life.” I don't agree, but if he felt that way why did he search for happiness and meaning? Or maybe it just came to him. “In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.”

“The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.” 

“Real generosity towards the future lies in giving all to the present.”

Mrs. Premise and Mrs. Conclusion were absurd, but they too persisted and learned something from Sartre about the roads to freedom. “If you're lonely when you're alone, you're in bad company... Do you think that I count the days? There is only one day left, always starting over: it is given to us at dawn and taken away from us at dusk... Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does. It is up to you to give [life] a meaning... Freedom is what we do with what is done to us... We are our choices... Hell is—other people!"

Best accessible recent account of Existentialism: At the Existentialist CafĂ©: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails by Sarah Bakewell. "Paris, near the turn of 1933. Three young friends meet over apricot cocktails at the Bec-de-Gaz bar on the rue Montparnasse. They are Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and their friend Raymond Aron, who opens their eyes to a radical new way of thinking. Pointing to his drink, he says, 'You can make philosophy out of this cocktail!'"

And so we'll ask: Have you ever read a book that changed your mind about something important to you? What would you say to Bertrand Russell and J.S. Mill about the First Cause Argument? Are linguistic paradoxes a deep philosophical/conceptual problem, or an amusing quirk of language reflecting our freedom of expression and self-discovery? Can you give an example of an unverifiable statement that you consider meaningful? If biology and the social sciences don't shed light on a shared species essence, what is the status of our common genetic and memetic inheritance? Can you construct a personal essence, it that's always subject to deconstruction and replacement? Could that be our essence? Where is gender headed, in this and coming generations? What's your Sisyphean rock?
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Cosmopolitans like Kwame Anthony Appiah push against the rock of nationalist chauvinism, and push for greater human solidarity. Anthony Appiah pushes alongside Adam Smith, the old free marketeer who insisted on recognizing what he called "reason, principle, conscience, the inhabitant of the breast, the man within, the great judge and arbiter of our conduct" as our greatest source of conscience. Like his friend David Hume, he found wisdom in thinking about his little finger. Hume's lexicon was different, in A Treatise of Human Nature, but the enlightened Scots agreed: we have it in ourselves to become more generous and less selfish. "It is not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger," but it is definitely contrary to our better sentiments and sympathies, and contrary to our humanity.
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Happy birthday Clarence Darrow, defender of Tennessean John Scopes in the 1925 Monkey Trial (which surprisingly many Tennesseans in my classrooms haven't heard of-they should read Trials of the Monkey and watch Inherit the Wind)... and Susan Faludi, author of Backlash: The War Against Women and Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man. "She received criticism from the feminist movement for focusing on men, but she shrugged it off, saying: 'I don’t see how you can be a feminist and not think about men. In order for women to live freely, men have to live freely, too. Being a feminist opens your eyes to the ways men, like women, are imprisoned in cultural stereotypes.'”

5:30/6:11, 63/79/62, 7:21

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