Sceptical Essays (Routledge Classics) Paperback – 2 Feb 2004
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"a collection of some of the most beautifully written and engaging essays in the English language, in which he tries to show that skeptical doubt can change the world."
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Idealism and Hegel
For B. Russell, idealism is a desperate attempt to keep mankind at the heart of the universe: `When the earth lost its central position, man too was deposed from his eminence. It became necessary to invent a metaphysic to correct the crudities of science. This task was achieved by the `idealists', who maintain that the world of matter is an unreal appearance. `Absolute' reality is Mind or Spirit'!
B. Russell shows that J. Bentham's philosophy is profoundly subversive, because the latter defined a `good' man as a man who does good and as a man whose activities and opinions are not pleasing to the holders of power.
Freedom and free thought
For B. Russell, `the bare minimum of freedom - food, drink, health, housing, clothing, sex and parenthood - should override any other claim.'
Thought is free when it is exposed to free competition among beliefs.
The ideal of an all-round education is out of date, because it has been destroyed by the progress of knowledge.
Marx proves conclusively that under capitalism wage-earners have suffered terrible privatizations. He does not (attempt to) prove that they will suffer less under communism.
On behaviorism (Dr. Watson)
For Dr. Watson, one of the most important elements in the judging of personality, character and ability is the history of the individual's yearly achievements and the yearly increases he received in his earnings! Russell asks: what about Jesus Christ, Buddha ...?
Man seen from the outside
`Our planet is a microscopic dot in the visible world. On this dot, tiny lumps of impure carbon and water (men) crawl about for a few years. They divide their time between labor designed to postpone the moment of dissolution for themselves and frantic struggles to hasten it for others of their kind. Natural convulsions and disease periodically destroy millions of them. These events are considered to be misfortunes; but when men succeed in inflicting similar destruction by their own efforts, they rejoice and give thanks to God.'
These frank, sarcastic and unambiguous essays are a must read for all those who love philosophy and who want to understand the universe we live in.
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Reading this book made me think of that hypothetical situation where you can have a dinner with anyone you want, living or dead. I think I’d have Russell at my table. His writing, reading it now, sounds contemporary. These essays, for the most part, would not be out of place in current conversation. I say for the most part, because there are a couple that strike wrong notes. One essentializes all “Chinese,” the other talks about the benefits of behavorialism and is perhaps too enthuastical about the problems that science could solve. Other than that, I liked all the essays. In fact, I liked them so much that it is hard to point out what was good. I normally read with a pen so I can take notes and engage with the text, but I couldn’t with this book. It just had narrative and argumentative momentum that I couldn’t dent. I instead dog-eared the pages where there was a striking turn of phrase of interesting way of looking at a subject that I hadn’t previously considered. By the end of the book, my wife remarked at just how many dog-ears were in the book. I can’t summarize it here and give it justices. You need to read Russell to appreciate him. I’m just a shadow on the cave wall.
What made me a `Russellian' is the tremendous clarity and comprehensiveness of Russell's writing. While reading "Why I am not a Christian", I mentally parsed through potential objections and qualifications, only to have them answered in the next paragraph or sentence. This thoroughly enjoyable experience has been repeated with the help of his other works. Though Russell's prose is most often praised for its clarity and simplicity - one of Orwell's maxims of good writing - his best quality is that amazing coherency and anticipation of objections. It is no small matter to be both comprehensive and clear while staying concise. No wonder the man received a Nobel Prize in Literature; no wonder he remains an authoritative figure in the intellectual world; no wonder he remains High Bogeyman of the pop apologists. And the works in Sceptical Essays are squarely within the Russellian tradition of forceful clarity, relentless reasoning, and felt humanism.
The modern sceptic should not expect to read this work unchallenged. As John Gray notes in his introduction to this edition, Bertrand Russell does not merely hit soft targets, such as traditional religion and superstition. He questions the methodologies of science itself in the Humean tradition. Though Gray's facile misrepresentation of Russell's position, that science rests on faith, is an overstatement - and by knowing some of the anti-humanist work of Gray, I see the roots of this as a desire for certain false equivalences - Russell recognizes that one cannot be too confident in the results of science. During the time of writing, Russell only saw the practical results of science as its power; the problems of induction and causation remained intractable. And so Russell concluded that the truth of science was a truth of pragmatism, and potentially a quite dangerous one at that. For the finding of a more satisfactory, rational basis for the sciences, Russell looked to the future. (For the interested, the philosophy of science has flourished since the time of writing. I think of advances in probabilism in particular.) Despite the epistemological authority enjoyed by science, scientists and modern sceptics who rely heavily on science should attend to the problems presented by Russell. To do otherwise would be missing the point of scepticism.
Above all else, these essays focus on sceptical thinking in matters of daily concern, such as education, technology, and politics. As far as politics is concerned, Russell joins Orwell, A.J. Ayer, Chomsky, and (sometimes) Hitchens in the `rationalist left' tradition, as opposed to what we might call the `irrationalist left', e.g. relativism, religious socialism, and the plagues of fellow-traveling and conspiracism. There is an emphasis on universalism in moral principles which center on human desires, even if the basis of morality is ultimately subjective. Russell draws on his travel experience in "Eastern and Western Ideals of Happiness" to compare and contrast the same, praising the more decent customs - these often being alien to the Western tradition. Russell strongly criticizes conventional morality throughout this collection. In "The Harm that Good Men Do", for example, he states the following: "Official morality has always been oppressive and negative: it has said `thou shalt not', and has not troubled to investigate the effect of activities not forbidden by the code" (p.99).
Russell sought to address the problems of his time and to anticipate the problems of the future. In "The Recrudescence of Puritanism", Russell diagnoses the problem of popular moral absolutism: "Unfortunately, the love of power which is the natural outcome of Puritan self-denial makes the Puritan more executive than other people, and makes it difficult for others to resist him" (p.107). In "The Need for Political Scepticism", he recognizes that parties seek division rather than cooperation (p.110), the need to acknowledge and value expertise in the political sphere (p.113), the increased need for international cooperation consequent to advances in technology and industry (p.119), the dependency of press and educational reform on political reform (p.120), and a need for increased transparency (p.122). In "Free Thought and Official Propaganda", Russell documents the filtering of free-thought by norms and the desires of power and how propaganda harms rational inquiry. "The Danger of Creed Wars" serves as a wonderful counterexample to those who thought that secularization would destroy the threat of dogmatic violence. Who can say that these issues have not remained relevant?
The works do have some deficiencies. Though he does not use it to deeply wrongheaded ends, Russell places too much confidence in psychoanalysis. This also occurs in his otherwise excellent History of Western Philosophy, among other places. Some of the essays feature arguments which are of little more than historical interests to the average reader, such as "Behaviorism and Values" and "Machines and the Emotions", but these do not detract from the quality of the collection.
A (mostly) timeless treat from a great analyst and historian. Five stars.
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