Sunday, June 07, 2020

Bertrand Russell on The Value of Philosophy

Bertrand Russell's famous 1912 The Problems of Philosophy has a final chapter on "The Value of Philosophy" that concludes with this paragraph:
. . 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 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.
Summed up, we get this:
Philosophy is to be studied because [philosophical] questions enlarge our conception of what is possible, enrich our intellectual imagination and diminish the dogmatic assurance which closes the mind against speculation.
So, here's what philosophy does:

  • it helps us understand that there are different views on issues: sometimes we think 'this is what you must think on this issue, since there's only one option,' when there are at least a number of views on the issues;
  • it helps us understand that, sometimes, these different views are at least somewhat reasonable: there's something plausible to say in favor of these different views; sometimes it's more than that in that you see that a view different from your own is supported by better evidence than your own view, and so you need to change your mind (or at least withhold your current view or suspend judgment on the issue until you know more);
  • this awareness of the range of possibilities can encourage creative problem solving: sometimes our set of solutions is constrained by our limited awareness of what's possible; 
  • all this should reduce "dogmatic assurance," basically a "darn it, I'm right here, no matter what anyone has to say: I don't care what they think, or why they think it, I'm right." This would contrast with something like a reasoned, open-minded assurance where, even if one is confident in one's views, one is open to learning more, open to critiques and open to changing one's views, if the evidence warrants it

So, in short, why study philosophy?

In short, because it can, and should, make people less dogmatic and so discourage people from accepting things on the basis of inadequate reasons, help them become more creative and constructive thinkers (and doers), and it will equip them with better attitudes and skills in engaging views that they don't currently hold, and the people who hold those views.

Is this something we need, especially now?

Update: a friend pointed out that this paragraph is especially important too:

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.

Update: also translated into Korean

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