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Bertrand Russell [1872–1970] was committed to a view of the world based on evidence and reason and was an energetic advocate for science and for a scientifically-oriented philosophy. It was recently claimed (in response to an article of mine at The Electric Agora) that he made a fetish of science. I don’t think he did.

Certainly, as an adolescent, Russell found comfort in the certainties of mathematics; and it takes a particular kind of mentality to be so concerned about the foundations of mathematics as to devote many years to attempting to elaborate a sound logical basis for the discipline. This is not just one man’s story however: there is a broader social and cultural context to take into account.

Russell’s long life spanned a remarkable period of European cultural and intellectual history. One of the things that made it so remarkable was the way that scientific advances in a range of areas – especially historical linguistics, textual criticism, natural history, mathematics and physics – mattered for the general culture. There was a sense that the world had changed irrevocably since the early 19th century; that it was no longer business as usual. Too many established truths had been shown not to be truths at all. Given this intellectual upheaval, it is no wonder that the new world sensed or foreseen by many thinkers and artists of this time was a disturbing and disorientating one.

What distinguished Russell and the thinkers with whom he was most closely allied from most philosophers of the time was their commitment to scientific methods and their openness to the very real possibility that their various projects might fail. They were intellectual pioneers; explorers, not dreamers. And they were bound in a very productive way to the spirit of their time.

The grand plan to create an explicit and complete logical system which could encompass arithmetic was demonstrated – by Kurt Gödel in the early 1930s – to be impossible. But, as Karl Popper pointed out, this is precisely how science works and progresses: by bold conjectures and refutations. Without the prior work by Giuseppe Peano, Gottlob Frege, Russell and others, Gödel would never have come to devise his remarkable proof. And it’s not as if Frege’s and Russell’s work was successful only in this negative sense. After all, their technical achievements helped to lay the groundwork for – and even shaped in certain ways – the revolution in digital computing as well as providing fruitful ideas in specific areas (such as formal linguistics).

I certainly don’t want to mount a defense of Russell’s logical atomism. I see the whole project of trying to construct a perfectly clear and perspicuous language (even if it is meant only for scientific purposes) as being doomed to failure. Russell’s own views changed over time and in his later works he defends an approach to human knowledge which is (in my opinion) eminently defensible.

Russell was drawn to a correspondence view of truth. It seems to me that there are indeed objectively existing states of affairs – in both ordinary and scientific contexts – to which most statements refer and against which their truth or correctness (or whatever term might be appropriate) depends. I see this view (or something very like it) as a prerequisite for science and scholarship as those pursuits have traditionally been understood.

Sure, such a view has been challenged by various forms of idealism and radical epistemologies over the years. It is currently under sustained attack. Is it worth defending? Absolutely. How one sees these matters has serious intellectual, cultural and even political consequences.

Critics of scientific realism have dominated the arts and humanities for decades. Richard Rorty was one of the most prominent. They take their inspiration from various sources, including the writings of Ludwig Wittgenstein.

In his youth, Wittgenstein worked with Bertrand Russell and then subsequently had dealings with the Vienna Circle before taking a rather different direction from the late 1920s on. But the main elements of his thinking remained the same: his distrust of metaphysics, for example. He even came to fault his earlier work (which was heavily influenced by Russell) as being too metaphysical.

Though Russell’s earlier work may have incorporated some questionable assumptions, his basic orientation was, like Wittgenstein’s, hostile to metaphysics. Certainly he was strongly opposed to Hegelian thinking and other forms of philosophical idealism.

Where Russell and Wittgenstein differ, there are some issues on which I side with one, and some issues on which I side with the other. But with respect to the status of science and scientific knowledge I am very much in Russell’s camp.

 

#BertrandRussell #19thcentury #20thcentury #Europe #culturalhistory #intellectualhistory #KarlPopper #knowledge #KurtGödel #language #LudwigWittgenstein #metaphysics #philosophy #postmodernism #science #scientificrealism #truth #epistemology

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In his account of his relations with the novelist, D.H. Lawrence, Bertrand Russell mentions more than once that he felt that Lawrence was possessed of a kind of insight into human nature deeper than his own logical mind would allow. There may be something in this. Lawrence had some very weird ideas, but his writing displays a deep understanding of human relationships and the emotional side of life.

In his autobiography, Russell wrote of the “devastating effect” certain criticisms which Lawrence once made of his social and political views had on him. These events occurred in 1915.

"I was inclined to believe that he had some insight denied to me," Russell wrote, "and when he said that my pacifism was rooted in blood-lust I supposed he must be right. For twenty-four hours I thought that I was not fit to live and contemplated suicide."

Though unquestionably a very influential and successful thinker, Russell had nagging doubts about the nature of his general outlook and particularly about the limitations of his perspective on social and human matters. All too aware of his intellectualism, he looked to Lawrence to articulate “a vivifying dose of unreason.” And Lawrence duly obliged...
More on Russell and Lawrence
More on Russell and Lawrence
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Our Walter Mitty culture...

In a recent piece [see linked article] I quoted Daniel Kaufman as claiming that modern culture is too much focused on the individual's experience. We are beginning to treat the value of any thing or activity as lying solely in the experience that is engendered by it. On this view, what is valuable about playing tennis is not the playing itself, but the experience one has in doing so; what is valuable about charitable activity is not the activity itself, but the experience that one has in engaging in it; and so on. This leads to an impoverished view of ourselves. Essentially we are cutting ourselves off from reality.

What matters is not just the experiences but what we are actually doing (and how well we are doing it). And, as Dan points out, most of us care about whether we really are good tennis players, or successful professionals, or whatever.

Virtual reality technologies are bringing these issues to the fore in a quite dramatic way however.

Previously dreamers – epitomized, for example, by James Thurber’s Walter Mitty – were seen as dreamers, and were laughed at or pitied. Mitty had a domineering wife and found satisfaction and fulfilment only in his fantasies (where he was a fearless wartime pilot or an assassin or a brilliant surgeon). It was all very silly and funny, albeit in a dark kind of way.

Are digital technologies creating a world in which Walter Mittys will be the norm?


#postmodernism #WalterMitty #reality #virtualreality #realism #JamesThurber
Experientialism and Reality
Experientialism and Reality
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There is a tendency (I have it myself) to see speaking as “conveying” something from one brain or mind to another. According to this view, a string of words encodes something (a message?) which is sent via some channel (sound waves, squiggles on a screen or paper…) from the speaker or writer to others whose senses and cognitive processes take in and decode this thing-that-was-sent, this meaning-thing, this message. You could see the initial coding as like the wrapping up of a parcel. The parcel is then sent and received and unwrapped (decoded). So that the very thing that was sent is received.

But, of course, this is not how linguistic communication actually works. For one thing, this model fails to account for the misunderstandings which are endemic but all too often unnoticed in ordinary social communication. Increasingly I have come to see linguistic communication as something of a “surface” phenomenon, often papering over (as it were) huge differences in the way individuals see the world; or sometimes (as in many comment threads) creating divisions and dichotomies which are largely linguistic and which fail to reflect in a clear or accurate way the actual differences and divisions which lie behind the disagreements in question.

You could see language – certainly in its mundane social uses – as a set of games we play which facilitate and enhance social interaction – and manipulation.
Language and Meaning
Language and Meaning
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Bertrand Russell is much less read these days than he was during his lifetime but he is still very highly regarded for his pioneering work in logic and mathematics; less so, it must be said, for his general views on science and the nature of human knowledge.

In a recent piece, I set out some views on the nature and scope of science which are pretty much in line with Russell's. I emphasized what I see as an unbridgeable gulf between science and human values. This idea is often ignored or strenuously resisted by those seeking to impose their values on others or merely looking for some confirmation or objective validation of strongly felt moral, social or political convictions.

In a not dissimilar way, philosophers and other academics often speak as if their intellectual expertise gives them some special insight into substantive moral or values-based social or political questions. It doesn't. No form of intellectual expertise does that.

No one (I am saying) can be an expert on questions of value, on moral priorities, for example, or on how one should live. These are just not the sorts of question to which the methods of science, or of any rigorous empirical, formal or practical discipline – and so, by extension, the notion of expertise – can be applied.

Do some people have more insights than others into human psychology etc.? Of course. Many playwrights and writers of fiction do, for example. But these insights are based on complex, culturally-generated systems of value, not on some rigorous discipline which can be made explicit and learned by others.

And, of course, judgments about which particular writers and thinkers are insightful and worth reading will differ. My list will be different from yours, possibly very different. But this should be no surprise as we naturally gravitate to those who share our basic value systems – and ignore or disparage those who don't.

Where do our values come from? Mainly from the general culture: language, customs, manners, attitudes, etc.. The arts play a role also. And, of course, biology, which accounts for many individual differences.

There are also certain basic biological “values” that we share with other animals (like sex and enjoyment of food) and others relating to more sophisticated social instincts that we share with our closest mammalian relatives. But, for us, these drives are culturally enhanced or modified.
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My father was always pushing me to read Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. Obviously the book had meant a lot to him as an adolescent. Being a rather contrary teenager and young man, I didn’t get around to reading it until much later – until after my father’s death in fact. I feel particularly bad about this, especially since it turned out – against my expectations – that I really enjoyed it.

I was recently involved in a discussion on a comment thread about the respective merits of Aldous Huxley and George Orwell (whose book 1984 is often compared with Brave New World) as novelists and as writers.

The debate which prompted the discussion was about which of the two dystopian visions has proved to be the most prescient; in other words, about the ideas in the books rather than about their literary quality. I said that, as I see it, both books are rich in ideas and – as far as the ideas are concerned – I don’t think it really makes sense to pit one set against the other.

On the other hand, I think you can make meaningful judgments about the two writers’ comparative literary strengths and weaknesses.

I got into trouble here. My claim that, although both writers were excellent essayists, Huxley was a better novelist was strongly challenged. I referred to Point Counter Point as an example of Huxley's mastery of the form. Nobody questioned this judgment directly but it was obvious that my interlocutors had a strong preference for Orwell as a writer and novelist.

With regard to Orwell, I don’t remember 1984 well enough to make a judgment on its literary merits. Animal Farm is good, but is not a novel. I liked Keep the Aspidistra Flying when I first read it, but only because, at the time, I identified to some extent with the main character. Stylistically it is rather flawed: wordy and repetitive. The second time around, I heard it as an audio book and its style really grated on me. It may be readable, but it's almost unlistenable to! (And this tells us something about the style, surely.)

There is no doubt that Orwell was a brilliant essayist, however, and had perceptive views on language and style.

On Newspeak, etc., my first thought was that in 1984 he overemphasized the scope for top-down linguistic engineering. But Orwell was aware that natural language changes tend to be usage-driven and that attempts at linguistic engineering have generally failed. He saw certain trends (towards abbreviating the names of government entities, for example) which were evident in Russia at the time, and which seem eerily similar to current trends in Western countries. He also had a strong sense that the English language was in decline in various ways and that this had negative implications for the future of our culture and social well-being. This point of view is controversial but worthy of consideration.

As it happens, we are currently seeing a degree of top-down pressure on usage. It was always the case that if you didn’t conform to agreed ways of saying things, you were ostracized from certain groups, didn’t get published, etc.; but these recent pressures have been to a large extent ideologically-driven (as they are in 1984). Historically, this has generally not been the case – at least in the English-speaking world.
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It's well-known that music can play a positive role in dealing with such conditions as Parkinson's disease and depression.

My mother has been struggling with a range of medical problems (including Parkinson's disease, severe depression and dementia) for some time. She has lived in a care home for six years now. Her concentration span is limited and she finds speaking increasingly difficult. But music remains important to her.

She had some early classical training on the piano but her main passions as a young person – apart from movies – were dancing and pre-rock-and-roll American popular music.

When I visit her, mostly in the evening, there is not a lot of talk, no dancing, and no television (apart from ten or fifteen minutes of news). Music is the main entertainment.

I play recordings which I know she likes mixed in with others which I think she might like: a bit of classical piano music, but mainly popular songs.

Certain themes and moods (e.g. love, loyalty, steadfastness, defiance) and certain styles and tempi (simple and slow) tend to resonate...

[See link for full article.]

#Parkinsons
#music
A Parkinson’s Playlist
A Parkinson’s Playlist
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At The Electric Agora, E. John Winner reflected recently on a tragic – and relatively late – episode in the long history of the destruction of Native American culture and society: the Battle (or Massacre) of Wounded Knee. I have only a general sense of the history involved here, but the basic themes will be familiar to anyone who has lived in a colony or former colony or has knowledge of European colonialism.

What many people don't realize is that in many cases the main actors on the European side saw their actions in positive and idealistic terms. I know a bit about British colonial activity during the 18th and 19th centuries and, if you read the letters and reports of the people involved (administrators, professionals, etc.), the sense of responsibility and moral seriousness is often palpable. Certainly they saw what they were doing in very different terms from how we tend to see it today.

That said, in most cases they underestimated the complexity and sophistication of the indigenous cultures with which they came into contact and which in many cases were almost totally destroyed.

There is, I think, a general acceptance that politics – and especially geopolitics – doesn't actually work according to principles of justice; in other words, that wealth, technology and ultimately force are more important driving forces. Consequently, claims based on moral or justice-related grounds are often seen in rhetorical and political terms. They may not even necessarily be believed in (in any real sense) by those initiating or promoting the claims. Claims based on generalized notions of justice (and especially on notions of social justice) are often wielded merely as political weapons.

My own inclination in dealing with historical narratives is to try not to expropriate them for political purposes, because this inevitably leads to distortion. The aim becomes not so much to understand what happened as to find or develop a politically effective narrative, to have a useful story. The story is judged not according to criteria such as balance or truth (i.e. whether it derives from a plausible interpretation of available primary sources) but rather in terms of perceived usefulness for bringing about a desired political outcome.

I am more comfortable dealing with terms like "probity", "decency", "cruelty" and "betrayal" than with more abstract and generalized concepts (like "justice" or "social progress"). The former can often be read out of primary sources fairly directly. By contrast, the latter – more often than not – are read into such sources by historians or activists who have their own preconceived ideas about what justice or social progress is or should look like.

We come to terms with the past only to the extent that we understand it. And understanding history inevitably involves being open to a range of (often conflicting) perspectives or points of view.
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When is a translation not a translation? To what extent do we have access to the thought-worlds of past eras?

These questions came to the fore for me recently through a friend’s involvement in a theatrical production which is based on a long poem by Alice Oswald called *Memorial* and subtitled (in the UK edition), An Excavation of the Iliad. It is an extended meditation on life and death in the form of a lament for the more than two hundred fallen warriors mentioned by name in the Homeric epic.

While some of Oswald’s prefatory remarks suggest that she is trying to interpret and present Homer’s basic meaning, in the final paragraph of her preface she seems to concede that her work has only a tenuous relationship with the text in question.

She writes: "I should add a note on my attitude to the printed Iliad. My ‘biographies’ are paraphrases of the Greek, my similes are translations. However, my approach to translation is fairly irreverent. I work closely with the Greek, but instead of carrying the words over into English, I use them as openings through which to see what Homer was looking at. I write through the Greek, not from it – aiming for translucence rather than translation..."

The claim to be writing “through the Greek, not from it” does not make a lot of sense to me.

She goes on to talk in very positive terms about oral traditions, and in almost pejorative terms about written language. In fact, she seems to imply that there is another Iliad than the printed one to which we might have access.

[See linked article for full discussion.]
Envisaging Homer’s World
Envisaging Homer’s World
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A colleague of mine had been marking examination scripts, and mentioned in exasperated tones that one student had begun an answer with the word "moreover".

The other day I came across a similar kind of case, but relating to an inappropriate final word rather than an inappropriate first word. The manager of my mother's care home recently circulated a notice giving the timetable for a carpet replacement program.

The final sentence:

"We apologize in advance for any inconvenience but we are confident you will agree that the new flooring will be most conducive."
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