Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Introduction to Russell's "History"

I was taught to consider "evil" all those who spoke out against the tradition in which I was raised. To look on them with a mixture of pity and hate.
I found Russell's "Why I am not a Christian" when I was in high-school, and promptly assigned him to my growing blacklist. I found his arguments to be outrageous. I decided, almost immediately, that they were juvenile, inflammatory, and empty.
Of course, they aren't. They are, for the most part, compelling. They do still prickle my skin, simply by being polemics aimed at the heart of my mind -- however, he himself has since been granted (by whom?) a pardon. His horns have fallen off. I've read a bit of a biography of his childhood as well as bits of other works, and they've convinced me of his sincere desire to believe what he feels are honest and justifiable things to believe.
"Why I'm not a Christian" ends by advocating the leaving-off of dogmas -- "A good world needs knowledge, kindliness, and courage; it does not need a regretful hankering after the past or a fettering of the free intelligence by the words uttered long ago by ignorant men," Russell says.
20 years later, in the middle of the second world war, Russell finished writing his History of Western Philosophy, with the help of his wife Patricia (who did most of the research for him). The issue of dogma factors heavily in this work as well. Dogma is on one end of the pendulum swing that Western Philosophy has been beating out since the beginning -- the other is Science. The No Man's Land between the two is Philosophy -- "something intermediate between Theology and Science."

All definite knowledge ... belongs to Science; all dogma as to what surpasses definite knowledge belongs to Theology. ... Almost all the questions of most interest to speculative minds are sych as science cannot answer, and the confident answers of theologians no longer seem so convincing as they did in former centuries.

He lists a series of unanswerable questions, questions that require dogmatic belief, or ... philosophy. He asserts that this book will be the answer to the question of why, historically, philosophy has bothered to ponder these unanswerable questions. Action depends on belief, and to understand why people acted the way they did, is to understand, in part, what they believed.
Science tells us what we can know -- not much -- and Theology purports to fill in the rest. Russell clearly doesn't appreciate this gesture. He would rather live bravely through the uncertainty he believes himself to be in, but "it is not good either to forget the questions that philosophy asks..."

To teach how to live without certainty, and yet without being paralyzed by hesitation, is perhaps the chief thing that philosophy, in our age, can still do for those who study it.

Russell then proceeds to give us the brief outline of history, through this oscillation-lens. He links to dogma any sort of cultural tradition that unites a people in a unified belief -- thus creating civilization of some sort -- and to science he ties any individualism or free-minded exploration of the world that tends to dissolve societal bonds. The cycle of history, according to Russell, follows this track, back and forth, rigid tradition to a relaxation to the beginnings of free-minded genius, to dissolution, to tyranny, whereby a new tradition is instituted ...

Russell ends his introduction with a rally-cry quite similar to that of "Why I am not..." His vision of a brighter future, in this instance, comes under the title of "Liberalism":

The doctrine of liberalism is the attempt to escape this endless oscillation [the one I've illustrated for you above.] The essence of liberalism is an attempt to secure a social order not based on irrational dogma, and insuring stability without innvolving more restraints than are necessary for the preservation of the community. Whether this attempt can succeed...

...only the future can determine.

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