Russell’s Conclusion: Modern Analytic Empiricism and a Better World

Russell’s Conclusion: Modern Analytic Empiricism Will Make a Better World

There is so much of value and interest in Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy that requires more than a few paragraphs. That will be addressed in future posts. But his conclusion can be stated and readers can, from their own experience, determine how Russell’s hope for a “new approach” to philosophy that would lead to widespread use of logical analysis to resolve social and economic problems is not yet here. However, we should not abandon hope; there is still a yearning for equality, peace and a better world. But in the 71 years that have passed, the world has not yet achieved for that even all the peoples in the world’s democracies, much less for the undeveloped nations of the world..

What is logical analysis, the approach to philosophy that he hoped would transform the way Western society could change the world? Russell does NOT say that this process will answer all the questions that Western philosophers have addressed over the past 2500 years. He admits, that though he has no doubt that many ancient problems are soluble, “there there remains, however, a vast field, traditionally included in philosophy, where scientific methods are inadequate.” (p. 834)

In 1945, the date of publication of the History of Western Philosophy, half the world had been destroyed by modern weapons of mass destruction. The first two nuclear bombs had been detonated, killing hundreds of thousands of people. But the WWII had ended, and civilization had survived. In fact, it was advances in science, notably physics and in technology that secured the survival of freedom against its fascist enemies in Germany and Japan. Of course, the Communist threat remained. But it, too, was defeated, or at least subdued by the superior science and technology of the West. this has not escaped Russell’s followers, and others with similar views.

Russell goes on about the vast field cited above. “This field includes ultimate questions of value; science alone, for example, cannot prove that it is bad to enjoy the infliction of cruelty. Whatever can be known, can be known by means of science; but things which are legitimately matters of feeling lie outside of its province.” (p.834)

He says, philosophy has tried to blend two theories: what is the nature of the world, and how humans should live harmoniously (ethically and politically) in it. Much confused thinking, he says, has resulted from the failure distinguish clearly between the two. He points out that from Plato on, philosophers have considered its “business” to produce “”proofs” of the existence of God. “And, they have found fault with their predecessors. And, in order to make their proofs seem valid, they have had to falsify logic, to make mathematics seem mystical, and to pretend that deep-seated prejudices were heaven-sent intuitions. All this is rejected by the philosophers (those who, in 1945 agreed with Russell) who make logical analysis the main business of philosophy.” (p.835)

Of course, not all philosophers agreed. Ludwig Wittgenstein, for example, pointed out that most logical positivists were keeping busy by re-writing scientific statements, and others attempted to reconcile or at least coordinate the teachings of Eastern sages with Western thought. Logical positivists refused to believe in a “higher way of knowing, by which we can discover truths hidden from science and the intellect.” Unfortunately, the “advances” in science and technology have not been accompanied by social, economic, religious, and political change necessary to permit its general application. In fact, a case can be made that the world has never before experienced as much inequality as now exists—not only between nations but WITHIN developed nations. The resulting unrest has created an increasing unrest that is disturbing the stability of European nations, and even the US.

Russell would, perhaps, be both pleased and disappointed in what has happened since he published his History. Pleased because of the advances in science and the fact that the world has NOT yet been destroyed by them. Yet disappointed because so little can be directly attributed to philosophers and the schools of thought that disseminate and perpetuate their ideas.

Science—notably physics and chemistry and applied mathematics–have advanced technology beyond the visions of all but the most advanced thinkers of the 20th Century. But the advances in communication, transportation, health care, and economic development have not been accompanied by a “new renaissance” in the development of philosophic thought. Perhaps it is coming, but the expanding conflicts among the “non-philosophical” elements of humanity now controlling many parts of the world keep the rest of the world from any short term optimism.

John H. Langer, JD, Ed.D. Retired Federal agency manger, former professor of education, public school administrator, and writer of a number of articles and publications on education, public affairs, substance abuse and social issues. In writing a book on attention and memory as it relates to education, this blog is helping to focus attention n current issues, and hopefully, add something useful as well.

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