Friday, March 7, 2014

Reflections on Russell's Value of Philosophy

The value of philosophy must begin with a clear understanding of what it is not. Philosophy is not hair-splitting trifles forever relegated to the abstract with little to offer by way of practical value. Russell thinks that the true value of philosophy is more directly experienced by those who study philosophy and only indirectly beneficial to others whose lives come into contact with the philosophy student. One has to wonder if Russell thinks that philosophy is only philosophy if it is formally studied at the academy. Russell is clear that he thinks there is great value in philosophy. He remarks, "If all men were well off, if poverty and disease had been reduced to their lowest possible point, there would still remain much to be done to produce a valuable society; and even in the existing world the goods of the mind are at least as important as the goods of the body."[1] Clearly Russell held that what was good for the mind was good indeed and philosophy, according to Russell is good for the mind.

Russell admits that even though philosophy has not experienced any great success in its attempts to provide definite answers to its questions, it remains a valuable discipline. The aim of philosophy is knowledge. Perhaps Russell is saying the necessary components required to attain knowledge are in and of themselves virtues to be acquired. Critical examination and the goal to purge biases and unfounded beliefs are surely noble practices, or so it would seem to Russell.

Russell believes that as soon as some knowledge becomes definite, it no longer belongs to the field of philosophy. He remarks, "It is true that this is partly accounted for by the fact that, as soon as definite knowledge concerning any subject becomes possible, this subject ceases to be called philosophy, and becomes a separate science."[2] In this sense there is little required to see the value of philosophy. It seems to stand on it's own two feet. I find this sort of reasoning contradictory. If philosophy adds to scientific or historical knowledge, then it does add value in that way and should receive credit for its contributions. Russell's view raises serious questions for the relationship between philosophy and theology. It also creates questions around where philosophy ends and how we might identify that point. Russell comments, "Hence, once more, the value of philosophy must not depend upon any supposed body of definitely ascertainable knowledge to be acquired by those who study it."[3]

I must confess that I am skeptical regarding this fellow's skepticism. I cannot help but ask if Russell's claims are philosophical in nature, and it seems to me they must be. Moreover, how can Russell be so dogmatic about philosophy's inability to provide answers to these questions? And how can he know that there is any value at all attached to a field that, in his own words, fails to deliver knowledge.
Russell tells us that the value of philosophy resides in its uncertainty. The consequence of such uncertainty is to free our thoughts from the tyranny of custom so that they may explore the many possibilities that exist. But what good does it do us to explore, if we are virtually assured that we will make little to no progress along they way. I fail to see how the state of 1,000 unanswered questions is any more valuable than the state of 100 unanswered questions. Why should wonder occupy such a high perch? If it produces nothing but more wonder, I fail to see the benefit. Russell has to demonstrate why critical exploration in and of, itself, is virtuous.

Russell, as any good skeptic would be apt to do, views doubt as a virtue. He remarks, "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."[4] We can certainly follow Russell to the place of wonder and to the land of critical examination and analyses. We can follow him to the land of acknowledging our biases and prejudices. And in some cases, we can agree that custom founded upon nothing other than custom is the sort of uncritical behavior that we would all do well to put off. However, we cannot follow Russell into his full-orbed skepticism. Indeed, curiosity about life's important questions, about God's creation and revelation is one thing. But doubt, well, that is another matter altogether. One can make far more progress from the vantage point of curiosity than they can from doubt. Doubt is like chasing the end of the rainbow. Once embraced, it is hard to shake. Curiosity on the other hand offers true hope that we can actually arrive at the destination we seek even if the ride gets a little bumpy along the way. God made us curious, sin makes us doubt.

[1] Bertrand Russell, The Problems of Philosophy, (Kindle Edition) 1649/1750.
[2] Ibid. 1654/1750.
[3] Ibid. 1669/1750.
[4] Ibid. 1683/1750.

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