Wednesday, December 14, 2005

The Value of Philosophy

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"The value of philosophy is, in fact, to be sought largely in its very uncertainty. The man who has no tincture of philosophy goes through life imprisoned in the prejudices derived from common sense, from the habitual beliefs of his age or his nation, and from convictions which have grown up in his mind without the co-operation or consent of his deliberate reason. To such a man the world tends to become definite, finite, obvious; common objects rouse no questions, and unfamiliar possibilities are contemptuously rejected. As soon as we begin to philosophize, on the contrary, we find, as we saw in our opening chapters, that even the most everyday things lead to problems to which only very incomplete answers can be given. 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. Thus, while diminishing our feeling of certainty as to what things are, it greatly increases our knowledge as to what they may be; it removes the somewhat arrogant dogmatism of those who have never travelled into the region of liberating doubt, and it keeps alive our sense of wonder by showing familiar things in an unfamiliar aspect."
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"The mind which has become accustomed to the freedom and impartiality of philosophic contemplation will preserve something of the same freedom and impartiality in the world of action and emotion. It will view its purposes and desires as parts of the whole, with the absence of insistence that results from seeing them as infinitesimal fragments in a world of which all the rest is unaffected by any one man's deeds. The impartiality which, in contemplation, is the unalloyed desire for truth, is the very same quality of mind which, in action, is justice, and in emotion is that universal love which can be given to all, and not only to those who are judged useful or admirable. Thus contemplation enlarges not only the objects of our thoughts, but also the objects of our actions and our affections: it makes us citizens of the universe, not only of one walled city at war with all the rest. In this citizenship of the universe consists man's true freedom, and his liberation from the thraldom of narrow hopes and fears."
- Bertrand Russell, The Value of Philosophy, The Problems of Philosophy

3 Comments:

Anonymous Jeff said...

This statement is great.

"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. Thus, while diminishing our feeling of certainty as to what things are, it greatly increases our knowledge as to what they may be; it removes the somewhat arrogant dogmatism of those who have never travelled into the region of liberating doubt, and it keeps alive our sense of wonder by showing familiar things in an unfamiliar aspect."

I have been thinking lately about how much of a pain in the ass the uncertainty associated with philosophy is. This statement encourages me to think more positively about this pain in my ass.

10:58 AM  
Blogger Xander said...

Good quote. But there are some merits to being imprisoned by common sense too. I revel in being alive driven by sensation and passion. The problem with questioning everything (the pain in the ass I believe Jeff is referring to) is that you never get anything done. You can turn into Plotinus: endlessing ruminating about the nature of the universe ignoring your physical needs and humanity until you are little more than a mental spectre. I think the best policy is to stay in the cage of common sense but always keep the key of philosophy handy. One is not truly imprisoned if one can leave when it suites him.

8:35 PM  
Blogger Xander said...

"It's not a sort of skeptisizm, it's just a thinking way on our actions." I'm a little confused by what you mean by this. I'm not talking about skepticism and neither is Bertrand Russell. I see now, using the phrase "question everything" was sloppy of me.
You can contemplate the nature of the universe without doubting anything. I'm talking about thinking too much and being open-minded to a fault.
The philosophical mode of thought is important but it is too cumbersome for general application. As is the scientific method. The fact that you got out of bed this morning means that at least in practice you agree with me.
We are always operating with some prejudices and using some common sense. I use the habitual beliefs of my age and my nation to help get me through the day. I brushed my teeth and locked the door of my apartment before I came to work today and I didn't put any contemplation into the reasons why I was doing these things.
Why am I wasting my time pointing out something so obvious? Because there is a trap of elitism that the
liberal-minded often get themselves into. By presupposing that there can be a supremely philosophical mode of thought free of prejudice and conviction one ipso facto presupposes that there is mode of thought superior to all others. If one then decides that they themselves engaged in this method of thinking then it becomes unnecessary for them to justify their convictions against all lesser modes of thinking or belief systems. How philosopical is that?
Consider how quickly you dismissed what I said as an attack on skeptism without charitably considering my arguement.
Okay, I have said a lot so let my outline my position once again as clearly as possible. One must attempt to balance philosophical thinking with common sense or you could end up living an absurb monastic life like Plotinus. No one, even someone as obsessed as Plotinus was, can rid themselves completely of habitual belief or prejudices nor is it reasonable to try. It is dangerous to believe that there is such a thing as pure open-minded philosophical thinking because it can lead to intellectual elitism and undermine the whole enterprise.

8:56 PM  

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