Some Remarks on Russell’s Metaphilosophy.
An Edgy Essay by Boethius, With a Postscript by Z
1. The Essay, by Boethius.
I’ve been reading Russell here and there recently, mostly late stuff from 1942-67, with an eye to studying his metaphilosophy.
There’s at least one common metaphilosophical thread with “The value of philosophy” from 1912, one thing I’ve noticed in the tone and substance of Russell’s criticism of philosophy I’d group in the “non-analytic” camp, and one consequence for broadening some of what Z says in his recent post “Professional Philosophy, Scientism, and Frankenscience,” and an earlier post from 2013, “If We’re So Smart, Then Why Are We Such Assholes?”
The common thread isn’t terribly novel, but it’s a thread of philosophy’s breeding a sort of modesty or humility about one’s claims to philosophical knowledge, and thus what knowledge one ought to say philosophy can deliver.
In “The value of philosophy,” it’s put in terms of the claim that philosophy gains no definite knowledge.
We get this again in “The art of rational conjecture” (1942) (with philosophy defined roughly with the title), and also the view of philosophy as having common ground with religion (by way of seeking the best sort of life) and with science (by way of seeking knowledge).
We get the latter view about common ground in “Philosophy for laymen” (1947), the opening paragraphs of A History of Western Philosophy (1945), and something similar in “Philosophy” (1945).
I don’t know the scholarship on Russell, since I’m only reading Russell on his metaphilosophy so far.
But one might think there’s a conflict internal to R’s view. If no definite knowledge is possible, then even benefits to life that Russell champions, like protection against dogmatism, aren’t definitely known either.
Russell meets this, perhaps, with the idea (in “Philosophy for laymen” and probably elsewhere) that we can, must, and do act on our views at some point. The art of rational conjecture includes finding what is most likely on all the evidence, philosophical and otherwise. Then we act.
OK, there’s more than one metaphilosophical point here, but the main one is the thesis of philosophy’s breeding modesty or humility about claims to philosophical knowledge.
But now extend this to metaphilosophical claims: claims about what philosophy is, what subjects within it should be privileged, how its methods should be developed over time, etc.
It seems Russell would call for humility here too, and I doubt he would be anywhere near as dismissive of alternative approaches as that for which analytic philosophers have the reputation for being.
Good evidence for this is in Russell’s evaluation of Dewey’s pragmatism about truth in A History of Western Philosophy (1945) and of Bergson’s mysticism in “Philosophy in the twentieth century” (1928).
I was expecting something much more polemical or pugilistic in these, or at least something much more colorfully critical. Instead we get a sober and substantial analysis with the principle of charity clearly in place.
Russell tempers the criticism of Dewey’s conception of truth with high praise for his influence and work in other areas of philosophy. He argues that Bergson’s mysticism is a vast improvement on previous flavors of the approach.
In other words, there’s criticism without derision. The substance and tone weren’t what I was expecting from a central analytic figure who substantially helped to end the influence of idealism.
(A side note: Russell is clearly against creeds and wars based on them. The political writings bear this out pretty obviously, it’s fairly uncontroversially true to be against them, and it’s easy to extend the thought to creeds in academia and wars based on them.)
That was the second point. The third is the consequence of some of this by way of broadening Z’s recent post on philosophy’s scientism and an earlier post on our being assholes.
Even though Z traces the origins of this scientism to the post-WWII period, I’m guessing his more-focused critique is of what’s developed more recently.
Russell’s philosophy isn’t scientistic in Z’s sense, yet he would be in The Fortune 500 Philosophy Club for his time, and was largely out of the professional academic philosophy game after WWII.
In any case, Russell is not Z’s type (A) careerist sophist asshole.
But he’s not Z’s type (B) or (C) either—type (B) being those in the group of “real philosophers who are constantly annoyed by and struggling with the whole enterprise, but can’t bring themselves to become lawyers or scientists, and also can’t figure out any other way of being so close to the thing they really love, short of becoming existential heroes and flinging themselves into the void of joblessness clutching their copies of Plato’s Dialogues” (from “If We’re So Smart, Then Why Are We Such Assholes?,” and type (C) being borderline between (A) and (B).
Russell is a special case, surely: he belongs to the very small class of what I’ll call “type (D)” philosophers: real philosophers with heavy-duty literary reputations outside professional academic philosophy.
After all, like Bergson, Camus, and Sartre, Russell won a Nobel Prize. So it’s easy if you’re Russell to leave academia and still be a philosopher full-time.
So I suppose Z’s reply to all of this will be “Sure, Russell’s a real philosopher with a heavy-duty literary reputation outside professional academic philosophy. That’s the other category, category (D).”
But I do wonder how far back Z is saying his categories (A)-(C) make sense to apply. After 1980? After 2000? The roots of analytic philosophy’s scientistic tendencies were in place before either.
So are there additional historical factors that push the contemporary professional academic philosophers who belong to The Fortune 500 Philosophy Cub mostly into category (A)?
And does it have anything to do with the demise of a Russellian metaphilosophy as I’ve sketched above?
2. Postscript, by Z.
Yes! and yes! again.
Since the 1980s, in addition to emerging and increasing scientism after WW II, card-carrying contemporary professional academic Fortune 500 Philosophy Club members have acquired a new and quite special kind of combined arrogance, dogmatism, and triumphalism, by their drinking a highly and even irresistibly addictive and deadly four-part kool-aid cocktail consisting of:
(i) the rapid rise, and by now, complete dominance, of neoliberalization at the leading colleges and universities,
(ii) the rapid rise, and by now, complete dominance, of endemic, forced specialization, both early- and hyper-,
(iii) much strategic battle experience in “the culture wars” of the 80s and 90s,
and intimately related to that, perhaps most addictive and deadly of all,
(iv) coercive moralism is the possession or channeling of institutional power sufficient to impose philosophical, moral, and political creeds on other professional philosophers and to win the wars based on them.
Directly relevant to (iv) is that during WW I, Russell was dismissed from his Lectureship at Trinity College, Cambridge for his conscientious objection to the war, his former teacher, and fellow Apostle, J.M.E McTaggart, leading the witch-hunt, convicted under the Defense of the Realm Act, and jailed for 6 months in Brixton Prison.
So were he still alive, Russell would be COMPLETELY against every part of this kool-aid cocktail.